Karl Bernhardovich Radek (1885-1939), Polish-Soviet writer and revolutionary

Lotte Jacobi, Karl Bernhardovich Radek [second from right] on a Railroad Platform, Moscow, ca. August 1932

According to Lotte Jacobi’s daybook, and as shown in her photographs, Karl Radek was part of the welcoming committee for the French communist writer Henri Barbusse at the Moscow railroad station on September 20, 1932. No doubt Radek was at the banquet for Barbusse Jacobi photographed at the Hotel Metropol on September 22 as well. Thus, only a month into her trip in the USSR, Jacobi met this central figure in Soviet politics.

The defining thread of Radek’s life can be boiled down to his lack of a national identity. Born Karl Sobelsohn in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1885 to a middle-class Galician Jewish family, Radek was exposed at an early age to many different national identities (Riga 460). His family were Austrophilists, his father working for the post office and his uncles in the Austrian civil service and army (459). Radek’s family insisted that their children be raised as Germanized Austrians. Liliana Riga has explained, “Both as beneficiaries of the Austrian State and as secular Jews, German literature and philosophy, and their universalist and humanitarian ideals, were preferable to the Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and clericalism of Polish culture” (459). The family moved to Tarnów, Poland, after his father’s death in the late 1890s. It was there that Radek first truly interacted with workers, and his experiences in both Lwów and Tarnów led to his joining Polish nationalist groups, as well as Polish socialist groups, including the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) (461).

Lotte Jacobi, Karl Bernhardovich Radek, Moscow, ca. August 1932

After being expelled from school for political radicalism in Tarnów, Radek re-enrolled in Krakow and became involved with the SDKPiL (Riga 462). During the early 1900s, Radek used his membership in the SDKPiL to further expand his interests in socialism to Germany and Russia. Specifically, he was interested in the Russian Revolution of 1905, which had begun after Tsarist troops violently responded to a worker demonstration (Kappeler 330). What became known as “Bloody Sunday” kicked off a year of uprisings, strikes, and clashes with authorities across Russia. In the Kingdom of Poland, the Russian portion of Poland, strikes began in Warsaw soon after (330). The unrest in Poland ran through 1906 and included activity by the SDKPiL, led in part by Polish-German socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (335). Andreas Kappeler notes that these uprisings “made a significant contribution to the politicization of the Polish masses” (335). It is during this time that we see Radek shift his position, for as Riga has written, “The center of gravity for leftist Polish socialists was now Germany, and Radek consciously abandoned his Polish orientation and relied on his ‘Germanized’ Jewish background” (Riga 464).

With the diverse roots of his family and his childhood experiences allowing him to easily move from one group or cause to the next, we see Radek’s ability to change his affiliations to best suit his evolving politics. After the SDKPiL split into Warsaw and Berlin factions, Radek was expelled from the Berlin group for being “sloppy and irresponsible” (Riga 465). He then joined a new group, the Bremen Left Radicals, who were German socialists. This union would prove to be short-lived, for as World War I began, Radek became disillusioned with German Social Democracy due to its imperialist orientation. “He deeply suffered the fact that German socialism seemed more concerned with ‘fatherland’ than with class revolution” (465). Separating political ideology from nation became an important part of his thinking, leading him eventually to work toward the goal of an international socialist movement.

Lotte Jacobi, Karl Bernhardovich Radek, Moscow, ca. August 1932

Radek escaped to Switzerland for the duration of World War I, as he was of military age, to avoid being drafted to fight for Austria-Hungary. There, Radek once again changed his spots, taking on the mantle of socialist internationalism. He spent much of his time in Switzerland connecting with Russian émigrés, and eventually developed a relationship with Vladimir Lenin based on a mutual interest in anti-war sentiment. He became ingrained with the Bolsheviks, and as such, was present during the negotiation and signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which allowed Russia to remove itself from World War I in order to focus on the domestic turmoil caused by the October Revolution of 1917 (Kenez 31). Radek, being at that time only a marginally good speaker of Russian, was sent to Berlin in December of 1918 by the Bolsheviks (Morrill 200).

Radek was essentially isolated from Moscow for the first year he was in Berlin (Carr et al. 411). He had been sent to Germany to help lay the groundwork for a similar Communist revolution there, only to discover that “the first wave of the revolution had receded” (412). He turned his focus from “shock tactics [to] patient propaganda through trade unions, factory committees, and parliamentary election” (412). During his time in Germany, he was captured and imprisoned by the German government, and though the German socialists put in much effort, the revolution in Germany never materialized (Riga 466).

Arriving in the Soviet Union in 1920 or 1921, Radek became involved with the Comintern, the Communist International, which had turned its attention to the “organizational weakness of the revolutionary proletarians in Central and Western Europe” (Morrill 191). Following Lenin’s death and the struggle for power in the vacuum it created, the Comintern became more and more “Russianized,” and anti-Semitism became more overt. As a foreigner and a Jew, Radek realized that the Comintern had failed as “a refuge for ethnopolitics” (Riga 466). He nevertheless survived the transition to Stalin. This time. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Radek stayed in the USSR, though he did not remain involved with the Comintern, and he would at times fall in and out of favor with the party’s leaders.

Lotte Jacobi, Karl Bernhardovich Radek with His Dog Devil, Moscow, ca. August 1932

Jacobi met Radek at a time when his favored status in the Soviet government made him Stalin’s top advisor on Germany, as well as the head of the Bureau of International Information of the Central Committee (David-Fox 96, Slezkine 601). It also enabled him to live with his wife Rosa and daughter Sophie in an apartment, where he was a frequent host, at the House of Government, built across the Moskva River from the Kremlin for elite government officials (Slezkine 386, 517, 726). Making photographs of him at home, Jacobi captured Radek in intimate, casual poses with his trademark pipe and with Devil, his white poodle. No doubt Jacobi and Radek felt a certain affinity, having both grown up in Poland as “Germanized” Jews.

When Jacobi met him in the fall of 1932, Radek was at the peak of his peripatetic life of struggle, but his good fortune lasted only a few more years. Soon considered an old Bolshevik, he represented a faction of communism that no longer meshed with Stalin’s vision for the Soviet Union; he was also too closely connected to Berlin. Radek became a victim of the Soviet purges of political elites in 1937 and 1938. He was accused of “want[ing] to overthrow the Soviet system by carrying out sabotage… [as an] agent of foreign powers and Trotsky” (Kenez 106). Radek was sentenced to hard labor and sent to Verkhneuralsk political prison, where in 1939 he was murdered on Stalin’s orders (Slezkine 864).

Moscow: People of Note

Contributors: Charles True, Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Billington, James H. “Six Views of the Russian Revolution.” World Politics, vol. 18, no. 3, 1966, pp. 452–73, https://doi.org/10.2307/2009765.

Carr, E. H., et al. “Radeks Political Salonin Berlin 1919.” Soviet Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 1952, pp. 411–30, http://www.jstor.org/stable/149119.

David-Fox, Michael. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941. Oxford UP, 2012.

“Front Matter.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 389, 1970, pp. i-174b, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1038843.

Johns, Sheridan. “The Comintern, South Africa and the Black Diaspora.” The Review of Politics, vol. 37, no. 2, 1975, pp. 200–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1406289.

Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire. Harlow, Longman, 2001.Lim, Jie-Hyun. “‘The Good Old Cause'  the New Polish Left Historiography.” Science & Society, vol. 61, no. 4, 1997, pp. 541–49, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40403669.

Morrill, Dan L. “The German Independent Socialists at the Second Comintern Congress.” Soviet Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 1971, pp. 78–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/149720.

Riga, Liliana. “Reconciling Nation and Class in Imperial Borderlands: The Making of Bolshevik Internationalists Karl Radek and Feliks Dzierżyński in East Central Europe.” Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 19, no. 4, Dec. 2006, pp. 447–472. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1467-6443.2006.00292.x.

Schurer, H. “The Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Origins of German Communism.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 39, no. 93, 1961, pp. 459–71, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4205276.

Slezkine, Yuri. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. Princeton UP, 2017.