On the 16th November 1927, scarcely ten days after the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Adolf Joffe shot himself. At his bedside he left a letter to Leon Trotsky, a translation of which we are publishing today for our readers (1) together with a brief explanatory introduction. These are the words of a genuine Bolshevik and victim of the Stalinist terror.
Adolf Abramovich Joffe, though trained to be a physician, had joined the revolutionary ranks quite early in life. He was active in the 1905 revolution, and had his share of the prisons and exiles of the tsar. Some time before the First World War he returned to Russia from Austria to organise the underground distribution of Trotsky’s Vienna Pravda, was arrested and exiled to Siberia. He was liberated only in 1917.
In 1917 he was a member of the two organisations that were directly responsible for the October insurrection – the October Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, and the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet.
After the revolution he was selected by Lenin for the most important diplomatic posts – he led the first delegation to the peace negotiations with the Germans at Brest Litovsk in December 1917, was ambassador to Germany in the stormy days of 1919, signed the peace with the Poles after the 1920 war, was delegated to the Genoa Conference in 1923, was sent to China to win over Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese nationalist leader, and later served as Soviet ambassador to Japan.
Joffe had been in failing health for a long time – long before the revolution his health was slowly undermined by a hereditary nervous disease. But that did not prevent him from active participation in the revolution, often appearing at the front lines when necessary.
He was among the first to join the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and had soon to pay the price for revolutionary intransigence.
For reasons explained in his letter, he chose the only way out, and as readers may agree, he died fighting.
The letter itself has a little history of its own. When Trotsky was informed of Joffe’s death by phone he was also told that there was a letter for him at Joffe’s bedside. But when Trotsky rushed there, the letter was missing. On his insistence, however, a photostat copy was handed over to Christian Rakovsky. Even in those days Stalin’s GPU functioned quite efficiently.
Joffe’s funeral was set for a working day. Yet 10,000 Moscow workers joined the procession led by Trotsky, showing Stalin that the Opposition was still not beaten. “His life, not his suicide, should serve as a model to those who are left behind. The struggle goes on”, said Trotsky.
Joffe’s widow, Marie Mikhailovana, was then removed from her position as editor to the State Publishing House in March 1929 after she protested against Trotsky’s expulsion from the USSR. She had not hesitated to join the Opposition along with her husband.
As a result, she was arrested and exiled. She was subject to prison and then a series of labour camps from 1929 until 1957, when there was a partial rehabilitation. It was only then that she learnt of the “liquidation” of her only son in 1937 at the age of seventeen.
Her book, One Long Night, based upon her experiences, was published in 1978 and is available from Wellred.
The price of Stalin’s rise to power, expressed in human lives is indeed monstrous. He did away with the entire glorious generation of revolutionaries that made October.
Adolf Joffe was among the first victims. We publish here the last word of that great revolutionary, whose moving personal story reflected the tragic betrayal of the October Revolution.
To Leon Trotsky,
Dear Leon Davidovich:
All my life I have thought that the man of politics ought to know how to go away at the right time, as an actor quits the stage, and that it is better to go too soon than too late.
More than thirty years ago I embraced the philosophy that human life has meaning only to the degree that, and so long as, it is lived in the service of something infinite. For us, humanity is infinite. The rest is finite, and to work for the rest is therefore meaningless. Even if humanity too must have a purpose beyond itself, that purpose will appear in so remote a future that for us humanity may be considered as an absolute infinite. It is in this and this only that I have always seen the meaning of life. And now, taking a glance backwards over my past, of which twenty-seven years were spent in the ranks of our party, it seems to me that I have the right to say that during all my conscious life I have been faithful to this philosophy. I have lived according to this meaning of life; work and struggle for the good of humanity. I think I have the right to say that not a day of my life has been meaningless.
But now it seems, comes the time when my life loses its meaning, and in consequence I feel obliged to abandon it, to bring it to an end.
For several years now the present heads of our party, in accordance with their general policy of not giving work to Communists of the Opposition, have given me neither political nor soviet work whose scope and character would permit me to be useful to the maximum of my capabilities. During the past year, as you know, the Politburo has completely cut me off, as an Oppositionist, from any political work.
My health has kept on getting worse. About the twentieth of September, for reasons unknown to me, the Medical Commission of the Central Committee summoned me to an examination by specialists, who informed me categorically that the state of my health was much worse than I supposed; and that I must not stay another useless day in Moscow nor remain another hour without treatment, but go abroad immediately and enter an appropriate sanatorium.
To my direct question, “What chances have I to get well abroad, and can I take care of myself in Russia without giving up my work?” the physicians and assistants, the practicing doctor of the Central Committee, Comrade Abrossov, another Communist physician, and the director of the Kremlin hospital, all answered simply that the Russian sanatoria could help me in no way, that I must rely upon treatment in the West. They added that if I followed their instructions, they had no doubt that I would be able to work for a prolonged period.
For about two months the Medical Commission of the Central Committee (in spite of having on its own initiative ordered the consultation) took no steps either towards my stay abroad or towards my treatment here. On the contrary, the Kremlin pharmacy, which had always delivered remedies to me according to the prescriptions, was forbidden to do it. It was, in fact, deprived of help of free medicines, which I had always enjoyed. I was obliged to buy the medicines that were indispensable in the pharmacies of the city. It seems that this took place at the time when the group in power began to visit on the comrades of the Opposition its policy of “Hit the Opposition in the belly.”
As long as I was well enough to work I paid little attention to all this, but as I kept getting worse my wife approached the Medical Commission of the Central Committee and personally Dr Semaskho, who has always, publicly, gone to extremes to realise his formula, “Save the old guard.” The matter was nevertheless constantly adjourned, and all that my wife was able to obtain was an extract of the decision of the council of physicians. In this extract my chronic maladies are enumerated, and it is set down that the council insists on my being sent abroad “to a sanatorium of the type of Professor Friedlander’s” for a period that may extend to one year.
Meanwhile, nine days ago I went definitely to bed on account of the acuteness and the aggravation (as always happens in such circumstances) of all my chronic ailments, and especially the most terrible, my inveterate polyneuritis, which has again become acute, forcing me to endure an absolutely intolerable pain and even preventing me from walking. For nine days I have been without any treatment, and the question of my trip abroad has not been taken up. Not one of the physicians of the Central Committee has come to see me. Professor Davidenko and Dr Levine, (2) being called to my bedside, prescribed a few trifles which obviously could do me no good, and then admitted that “nothing could be done,” and that a trip abroad was indispensably urgent. Dr Levine told my wife that the affair was dragging because the Medical Commission evidently thought that my wife wanted to go with me, and “that makes it too expensive.” My wife answered that, in spite of the sad state I was in, she decidedly did not insist that she or anyone else accompany me. Whereupon Dr Levine assured us that, under these conditions, the matter would soon be settled. Dr Levine repeated to me today that the doctors could do nothing, that the only resource was immediate departure abroad. Then in the evening the physician of the Central Committee, Comrade Potiomkin, notified my wife that the Medical Commission of the Central Committee had decided not to send me abroad but to care for me in Russia. The reason was that the specialists insisted on a prolonged treatment abroad, deemed a short stay futile, and that the Central Committee would only give for my cure a maximum of one thousand dollars and found it impossible to give more.
While abroad recently I received an offer guaranteeing me twenty thousand dollars in royalties for my memoirs, but (considering that they would have to be censored by the Politburo and) knowing how the history of the party and of the revolution is falsified in our country, I did not consider it possible to lend a hand to such a falsification. The entire censorship of the Politburo would consist of not allowing a true evaluation of the personages and their acts, either on one side or the other – either of the authentic leaders of the revolution or of those who at present find themselves invested with this dignity. In consequence I see no way to get treatment without receiving money from the Central Committee, which, for all my revolutionary work of twenty-seven years, thinks it possible to value my life and my health at a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars.
That is why I say that the time has come when it is necessary to bring this life to an end. I know that the general opinion of the party is opposed to suicide, but I believe that none of those who understand my situation will condemn me for it. If I were in good health I should have found strength and energy to struggle against the situation created in the party. But in my present state I cannot endure a situation in which the party silently tolerates your exclusion from its ranks, even though I am absolutely certain that sooner or later a crisis will come which will oblige the party to cast off those who have led it to such a disgrace. In this sense my death is a political protest against those who have led the party to a situation such that it cannot react in any way to this opprobrium.
If I may be permitted to compare something big with something small, I will say that the immensely important historical event, your exclusion and that of Zinoviev, an exclusion which must inevitably open a period of Thermidor in our revolution, and the fact that I am reduced, after twenty seven years of revolutionary work at responsible posts in the party, to a situation where I have nothing left but to put a bullet through my head – these two facts illustrate one and the same thing – the present regime in our party. And perhaps the two events, the little and the big one together, will jar the party awake and halt it on the road leading to Thermidor. (3)
Dear Leon Davidovich, we are bound together by ten years of work in common and, I hope, of personal friendship, and that gives me the right to tell you, at the moment of farewell, what seems to me to be a weakness in you.
I have never doubted the correctness of the way you have pointed out, and you know that for more than twenty years, ever since the “Permanent Revolution”, I have been with you. But I have always thought that you lacked the inflexibility, the intransigence of Lenin, his resolution to remain at the task alone, if need be, in the road that he had marked out, sure of a future majority, of a future recognition by all of the rightness of that road. You have always been right politically, beginning with 1905, and I have often told you that with my own ears I have hear Lenin admit that in 1905 it was not he, but you, who was right. In the face of death one does not lie, and I repeat this to you now.
But you have often renounced your right position in favour of an agreement, a compromise, whose value you overestimated. That was wrong. I repeat: politically you have always been in the right, and now more than ever you are in the right. Someday the party will understand this, and history will be forced to recognise it.
Moreover, don’t be afraid today if certain ones desert you, and especially if the many do not come to you quickly as we all wish. You are in the right, but the certainty of the victory of your truth lies precisely in a strict intransigence, in the most severe rigidity, in the repudiation of every compromise, exactly as that was always the secret of the victories of Ilyich. (4)
I have often wanted to tell you this, and have only brought myself to it now, at the moment of saying goodbye.
I wish you energy and courage equal to those you have always shown, and a swift victory. I embrace you. Goodbye.
PS. I wrote my letter during the night between the fifteenth and sixteenth, and today, the sixteenth, Marie Mikhailovna went to the Medical Commission to insist on their sending me abroad, if only for one or two months. They answered her that in the opinion of the specialists a short stay abroad was absolutely useless. They told her that the Medical Commission had decided to transfer me to the Kremlin hospital. Thus they refuse me even a short trip for the sake of my health, even though all the doctors agree that a cure in Russia is of no use and will do me no good.
Goodbye, dear Leon Davidovich. Be strong, you will need to be, and energetic, too. And bear me no grudge.
1. The letter is based on a translation by Max Eastman and follows the 1950 LSSP edition.
2. Dr Levine was Lenin’s personal physician, who was condemned to death in the third Moscow trial in 1938.
3. Thermidor is a regime which, while not doing away with the social gains of the revolution to ant major degree, deprives the masses of its political gains; an analogy with the regime that followed soon after the French Revolution of 1789 - on 24 July 1794 to be exact – according to the new French revolutionary calendar on the 9th of the month of Thermidor.
4. Lenin, whose full name was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.