A political earthquake shook the world 100 years ago: the Russian Revolution. Its tremors were felt in London’s East End which, from the early 1880s, was home to tens of thousands of Jews who had fled discrimination, persecution, threats and violence in the Russian Empire, and were looking for safety, freedom and a better life. But the continuing oppression in the old country was still important for them.
In 189o they held a huge protest meeting about the persecution of Jews in Russia, at the Great Assembly Hall at 31 Mile End Road, with Eleanor Marx, William Morris, Michael Davitt and Prince Peter Kropotkin among the star invitees. Joining them on the platform were Russian exiles such as Felix Volkhovsky and Sergei Stepniak, founders in London of the Free Russia newspaper.
In 1898, immigrant Jewish workers donated money to a trade union fund administered by a Mr Trushkowsky at 113 Brick Lane, who was transferring the money collected to Bialystok to support striking workers there. In 1903, when news came through of a terrible pogrom in Kishinev over two days which left 49 people dead, hundreds wounded, and 2,000 people homeless, 25,000 immigrant Jews marched from the East End to Hyde park to register their protest.
A well known gang of four – Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemberg – graced meeting halls and cafes of the East End in May and early June 1907. Luxemberg did not feel particularly inspired by Whitechapel’s special Cockney atmosphere. Having “travelled through the endless stations of the dark underground”, she emerged, she said, “both depressed and lost in a strange and wild part of the city.”
“It’s dark and dirty here,” she added. “A dim street light is flickering and is reflected in puddles and pools… Groups of drunken people stagger with wild noise and shouting down the middle of the street, newspaper boys are also shouting, flower girls on the street corners, looking frightfully ugly and even depraved, as though they had been drawn by Pascin, are screeching and squealing”.
Luxemberg and her colleagues were among 336 delegates attending the 5th congress of the Russian Revolutionary party. The registration centre was in a radical Jewish club above a shop on Fulbourne Road, which faces London Hospital at Whitechapel. For three days and nights before the congress began,the Bolshevik faction, comprising just under a third of the delegates, held its caucus there. Other large delegations included 99 Mensheviks, 57 Bundists (Jewish Socialists) and 44 Polish Social Democrats.
Most of the delegates were on a brief visit for the Congress but others were temporarily living in London longer. From their base here they agitated for change in Russia, speaking at meetings, writing and sharing literature, and producing revolutionary material to be smuggled back home.
Closer to the days of the revolution, the situation for male Russian Jewish immigrants of combat age suddenly became much more fraught. As conscription was enforced nationally, they were exempted from joining the war effort at first, as they were considered “friendly aliens”and conscription was restricted to British subjects. But as resentment spread among their neighbours, and riots broke out in Bethnal Green, the Government signed a convention with Russia compelling them to sign up. That meant allying with the Empire they had fled from, in many cases in the face of threats of forced conscription. If they didn’t join the war effort they faced deportation back to Russia. They looked to new campaigning bodies that had formed such as the Foreign Jews’ Protection Committee and the Russian Anti-Conscription League to fight to uphold their right of asylum. In this struggle they could count of the support of prominent non-Jewish East End political figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury.
The words I’ve just written will sound familiar to the 31 adults, one 16 year old and one baby, who joined me for two and a half hours last Sunday morning as I launched my new walk, “The East End and the Russian Revolution”.
I had unprecedented demand for places on this walk and had to reluctantly turn down many bookings after I reached capacity. But I have just released a date for its second incarnation, which is Sunday 23rd April at 10.30am. Whether you are a Bolshevik, a Menshevik, an Anarchist or a Bundist, or indeed, none of the above, I promise to leave you at the end of the walk with much to think about! You can book online here