Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012; 490pages. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0674065987
After historian Paul Avrich’s death in 2006, Karen Avrich spent six years completing her father’s manuscript on the relationship between renowned anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Sasha and Emma is Paul Avrich’s 11th book and reflects 40 years of his research into the lives of these “dauntless radicals” (x). Written as a dual biography, it interweaves the stories of the two immigrants who embraced anarchism because of oppression [End Page 191] in late nineteenth-century tsarist Russia and economic inequality in the United States. Although Berkman and Goldman shared a utopian dream, Paul and Karen Avrich contrast Berkman’s sometimes taciturn personality and rigid conformity to his principles with Goldman’s spirited fight for anarchism, free love, free speech, and other causes. As the authors struggle to reconcile Berkman and Goldman’s acceptance of violence with their humanitarianism, the Avriches conclude that “it was not their hostile pursuits but their energetic and eloquent commentary, their steadfast idealism, their quest for a just harmonious society that made a lasting impact on contemporary America” (4).
Divided into three parts, Sasha and Emma begins with the parallel stories of the immigrants’ radicalization and youthful devotion to rapid social change. In alternating sections, Paul and Karen Avrich show how Berkman became an impoverished worker in the United States, Goldman escaped an ill-suited marriage, and both came to admire the men executed for the 1886 Haymarket bombing as martyrs. Berkman and Goldman’s meeting in New York City and entrance into an anarchist community under the guidance of Johann Most began a 50-year relationship marked by long periods of separation. Berkman’s 14-year imprisonment after shooting industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the 1892 Homestead Strike poses a challenge for the authors as they move between chapters on Berkman’s deteriorating physical and mental health at the Western Penitentiary and Goldman’s growing notoriety as an activist. Using both Goldman and Berkman’s writings, the Avriches explain Berkman’s attentat, anarchist deed, as a mistaken attempt to “apply Russian tactics to American problems” (78). They argue that having failed to spark a workers’ revolution, Berkman felt betrayed and, unlike Goldman, would never embrace the United States as his home.
Part 2, “Palaces of the Rich,” brings Goldman and Berkman back together after Berkman’s release and explores their personal relationships as well as their radical activities. Paul and Karen Avrich follow Berkman as he struggles to return to society and create an identity separate from Goldman’s by publishing his prison memoirs and the Blast. They examine the development of Goldman’s Mother Earth and note her many speaking engagements but also show the extensive network of radical supporters and friends Goldman built to sustain her activities. The authors place Berkman and Goldman within the context of the history of American radicalism throughout, incorporating topics such as the repression of the Industrial Workers of the World, the 1913 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, and [End Page 192] the conviction of Thomas Mooney and Warren Billings for the explosion at the San Francisco Preparedness Parade in 1916.
With the coming of the First World War, anarchists and other radicals became targets for government officials who feared sedition, and Berkman and Goldman both faced arrest, imprisonment, and deportation for opposing the draft. Part 3 begins with Berkman and Goldman’s hope that the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia would lead to true freedom and their growing sense that the Bolsheviks had betrayed the working class. Disillusioned by the Kronstadt rebellion and the subsequent murders of anarchists as dissidents, they fled Russia first for Switzerland and later Germany and France. As Paul and Karen Avrich examine Berkman and Goldman in exile, the theme that Goldman felt tied to the United States while Berkman lacked a country becomes more salient as Goldman alone longed for a way to return to her adopted home.
More than just a dual biography, Sasha and Emma is a sweeping narrative that spans 70 years and the...