European studies blog

24 October 2016

Trotsky, Sri Lanka and an ‘Olympian goddess’

What links Trotsky, Sri Lanka and a young Bolshevik woman journalist? The answer lies in a 20-page book published in Maradana, Sri Lanka, in 1948.

Svyashk cover 9458.b.10

 Larisa Reiner, Svyazhsk: An Epic of the Russian Civil War – 1918 (Maradana, 1948) British Library 9458.b.10

Entitled Svyazhsk: An Epic of the Russian Civil War – 1918, the book contains the only known English-language translation of a civil war-era work by Larisa Reisner, a journalist and writer who reported on the Russian Civil Wars while simultaneously serving as a political commissar in the Red Army.

Image 1 Larisa_Rejsner

 Portrait of Larisa Reisner (From Wikimedia Commons

Svyazhsk tells the story of the Red Army’s successful campaign in the town of the same name – 490 miles southeast of Moscow on the Volga River – to recapture the nearby city of Kazan from anti-Bolshevik forces in August/September 1918. Reisner, who participated in the events as part of the Fifth Army, describes how Trotsky was sent to organise the campaign:

No matter what his calling or his name, it is clear that this creator of the Red Army, the future chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, would have had to be in Svyazhsk; had to live through the entire practical experience if these weeks of battle; had to call upon all the resources of his will and organisational genius for the defence of Svyazhsk, for the defence of the army organism smashed under the fire of the whites.

A version of Svyazhsk was first published in Russian in 1923, in the Soviet historical journal Proletarskaia revoliutsiia (‘Proletarian revolution’; Mic.C.1326). The following year, a slightly longer version was published in Front, an edited collection of Reisner’s articles from the frontline. Almost a decade later, in 1943, an English-language translation of the Front piece – by John G. Wright, a leader of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who became well-known as a translator of many of Trotsky’s works into English, and the lesser known Amy Jensen – appeared in the SWP’s journal Fourth International (Mic.B.617/1,2). While remaining faithful to Reisner’s text, Wright and Jensen added headings – such as ‘The Arrival of Trotsky’s Train’ – to signpost various stages of the campaign. It is this translation which was published in book form in Sri Lanka in 1948. Four years later, in 1952, the book was deposited in the British Museum Library.

Image 2 Trotsky lion

 Bolshevik propaganda painting showing Trotsky, depicted as a lion, destroying the counter revolution. This is the original of the image shown in grainy black-and white on the front over of the LSSP edition of Svyazhsk. Image from:

As detailed on its front cover (along with a striking pro-Trotsky propaganda image), the book is dedicated to the memory of Trotsky, who was assassinated in August 1940. It was published by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) – a Trotskyist party founded in Sri Lanka in 1935. Several works by, or relating to, Trotsky were published by the LSSP, making Sri Lanka one of the main places to publish Trotskyist works at a time when they were banned in the Soviet Union. As noted by the editors of the LSSP edition of Svyazhsk, Reisner’s civil war sketches were also forbidden in the Soviet Union during this period ‘for their unforgettable portraits of the civil war leaders murdered by Stalin.’ The chapter Svyazhsk was removed from later editions of Front – even those published as late as 1980 (X.950/14395).

4th international logo

 The logo of the Fourth International as printed on the inside-back cover of the LSSP edition of Svyazhsk

Reisner undoubtedly provides a celebratory account of Trotsky’s role in the Svyazhsk campaign, but her piece was also chosen by the LSSP as a memorial publication for another reason. Trotsky and Reisner were close acquaintances, writing informally to each other in the decade after the October Revolution. The feeling of admiration was clearly mutual. In Trotsky’s autobiography My Life, published a few years after Reisner’s untimely death at the age of 31 in 1926, he described her as an ‘Olympian goddess’ who ‘combined a subtle and ironical mind and the courage of a warrior.’

Katie McElvanney, British Library – QMUL Collaborative PhD student


Larisa Reisner, Izbrannoe (Moscow, 1980). X.950/14395.

Larisa Reisner, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1928). 12593.l.24.

Trotsky, Leon, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, 1979). X.708/22026.