The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChosetoChallenge. If there was one person about whom this could be said it was Larissa Reisner.
This legendary woman was at the very juncture of the worst and best in humanity. A new translation of her war despatches, The Hammer and the Anvil, evokes a key moment in the Russian Civil War.
She was not your ordinary war correspondent. Inspired by the 1917 October revolution, Reisner had offered her services to the Bolshevik Central Committee: “I can ride, shoot, reconnoitre, write, send correspondence from the front, and if necessary, die…”
It was not bravado.
In August 1918 she travelled over 800 kilometres from Moscow to Kazan in Tartarstan with Fyodor Raskolnikov, Deputy Commissar for Naval Affairs, later to become her husband. There, she was appointed Commissar of the Reconnaissance Division of the Flotilla’s General Staff.
That summer Kazan was the high point of the anti-Bolshevik campaign on the river Volga, a crucial location in the noose tightening around Moscow.
Reisner describes the Red Army’s devastating retreat from the city. Heading up an intelligence unit, she is captured, strip-searched and interrogated at the White Army HQ. On the way to the interrogation she passed by a group of sailors “from my own flotilla” about to face the firing squad. She was heading towards a possibly worse fate.
But thanks to a moment of “fabulous, divine, mad happiness” and a sympathetic horse-drawn cab driver, she manages to escape. Her description of the cab rumbling along the “dreadful cobbled pavements of Kazan” is surreally reminiscent of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
When the regiment upstream on the Volga lost its nerve and took flight, the island town of Sviyazhsk was the headquarters of the 5th Army in Trotsky’s armoured train. But a scarcely believable change then took place:
“Little by little, what began as the fantastical belief that this small station [Sviyazhsk] might become the launchpad for a reverse attack on Kazan began to take shape.”
Reisner observes how “such a deep internal transformation takes place when people who go to the revolutionary front first of all erupt like a thatched roof set on fire at all four corners, and then cool down and set hard-and-fast to become a fireproof, absolutely bright, finished ingot”.
Most telling is the depiction of how, from almost nothing, Red army organisers set up complex operations in the train which for two and a half years was the Red Army’s supreme command post:
“Now, Rozengoltz was brought there like a queen bee in a sack, put in a ruined hive and immediately began to build uncontrollably, to remove cells, get telegraph wires buzzing … His strength lay not in his military bearing but in his organic ability to revitalise, reconnect, raise to an explosive velocity the flow of bunged-up, congested circulation. Next to Trotsky, he was like a dynamo, efficient, unforced, manipulated silent mighty levers, day and night spinning his unbreakable organizational web.”
Reisner pays tribute to how Trotsky used his willpower and organisational genius in defence of Sviyazhsk, “sensitive to the slightest shift in the movement of the masses”.
Mourning Bolshevik navy commander Nikolai Markin who died in the Volga river battle, she momentarily restores him to life: “Markin died and took with him his fiery temperament, his restless, almost primitive second-guessing of the enemy, with his ruthless will-power and pride, his blue eyes, his vivid cursing, the kindness of his heroism”.
The Workers and Peasants Army took Kazan on 10 September 2018. “That moment was a notable date in the history of the Red Army. Immediately, we felt firm ground under our feet. These were no longer our first helpless attempts: from now on we could fight and win,” Trotsky wrote in 1922.
In his autobiography he said of Reisner: “This fine young woman flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many. With her appearance of an Olympian goddess, she combined a subtle and ironical mind and the courage of a warrior.”
Like Vassily Grossman (writing about Stalingrad 25 years later) she astonishingly contrasts the horrors of war with moments of exquisite beauty. At the height of battle on the river Volga, she could still describe how:
“Within the high pillars of water created by the shells, fiery arcs flared. Every minute, the river heaved with foaming white and rainbow fountains which then melted away. A flock of frightened swans rose up from the shallows…”
The lyrical turns of phrase in Larissa’s writings were no accident. The youthful editor of a poetry magazine called Boheme, she drew close to the Acmeist group around the poet Nikolai Gumilyov. Then, barely out of her teens, she edited and published the anti-war satirical magagine Rudin, supported by her parents.)
Fast forward to 1926. Reisner died 9 February of typhus, three months before her 31st birthday. She was buried in the square of the Communards at the Vaganka cemetery.
Her writing, as biographer Cathy Porter noted in 1988, “contains both the rich individuality of the old culture and new flourishing, collective that supersedes it”. And, finally, Reisner’s friend, the poet Nikolai Nikulin, said of her: “She will enter the history of the new world as a beautiful model of a new human type”.
This new translation by Jack Robertson flies off the page in an attractive design by Roger Huddle. It leaves you hungry for more. An online presentation is being held tonight, 8 March.
The Hammer and the Anvil, despatches from the frontline of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1919, by Larissa Reisner, is published by Redwords, March 2021