David Riazanov, a Revolutionary Scholar of Marxism

David Riazanov was a brilliant scholar who pioneered the study of Marxism while playing an active part in Russia’s revolutionary movement. But Ryazanov and the Marx-Engels Institute he founded both fell victim to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.

Portrait of David Ryazanov, 1923. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1870, David Riazanov, one of the most committed, humane, and relevant figures of Marxism, was born in Odessa, the great cosmopolitan Ukrainian city, into a well-to-do Jewish family. The city was home to a large Jewish community — 37 percent in 1897 — that bore the brunt of tsarist pogroms. Riazanov was a nom de guerre he adopted in place of his original surname, Goldendach, as he became a dedicated activist in the revolutionary movement fighting to overthrow the absolutist regime.

Riazanov was an eccentric scholar, volatile and romantic, with an unlimited capacity for work. Leon Trotsky defined him as being “organically incapable of cowardice, or of platitudes,” adding that “any showy ostentation of loyalty disgusted him.” For Anatoly Lunacharsky, he was “indisputably the most learned man in our party.” John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, described him “as a bitterly objecting minority of one.”

After the October Revolution, Riazanov was publicly critical of many actions taken by the Soviet government, from the enforcement of the death penalty to the consolidation of a one-party system. In spite of these criticisms, he remained a member of the ruling Bolshevik Party and built up a state-sponsored institute to promote rigorous scholarship about the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

However, Riazanov eventually fell foul of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship and was executed on trumped-up charges in 1938. Riazanov’s execution sounded the death knell for serious engagement with the work of Marx within the borders of a state that had been founded in his name.

A Revolutionary Scholar

A born revolutionary, by the age of fourteen Riazanov was already a “secret courier” for the Populists. Arrested for the first time in 1887, he translated David Ricardo’s writings in prison. In 1889, he attended the congress of the Socialist International and came into contact with luminaries of socialism such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Rudolf Hilferding.

In 1892, he was sentenced to four years in prison and exiled to Chişinău; the following year, he escaped abroad with his wife. In exile, he founded the Borba (“Struggle”) faction and stood outside the two main tendencies in Russian Marxism, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. He returned to Russia during the 1905 revolution and was arrested again in 1907 before going once more into European exile.

For the next ten years, Riazanov lived in the West and devoted himself to writing about the history of anarchism, socialism, and the workers’ movement. His works on subjects like Marx and tsarist Russia or Engels and the Polish question were published in German and later in Russian. His friendship with Bebel and Kautsky gave him free access to the library of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and to the manuscripts of Marx and Engels.

Kautsky proposed that Riazanov should take responsibility for a history of the First International: “You are familiar with international relations like no other, an expert in our socialist literature.” Riazanov wrote the first volume in 1914, but the outbreak of WWI interrupted its publication while he was correcting proofs. It finally appeared in 1925.

Riazanov gradually formed a framework for the complete works of Marx and Engels, for which the German acronym was MEGA. In 1910, a secret conference was held in Vienna at which a proposal for the complete works was presented for the first time. Riazanov drew up the broad outlines of the plan. His closeness to Marx’s daughter Laura Lafargue gave him the opportunity to research the family archives and intimate correspondence.

In 1917, Riazanov was able to publish two volumes of writings from the 1850s by Marx and Engels, with 250 unknown articles from newspapers such as the New-York Tribune and the People’s Paper. In total, between 1908 and 1917, he published a hundred pamphlets, articles, books, essays, presentations, notes, and other original texts by or about Marx and Engels. These publications set out the main points that would be embodied in the future MEGA.

The basic idea was to apply the materialist conception of history to the study of Marx and Engels themselves, understanding them as personalities who interacted dialectically with objective historical forces and structures. Riazanov aimed for the publication of complete works with a scholarly apparatus of introductions, citations, and indexes. At this point, a contemporary could say that Riazanov “knew the dots and commas of Marx’s and Engels’s writings.” And he was not wrong.

On the Journey Again

Riazanov never abandoned his role as a political militant during these years in exile. When war broke out in 1914, he participated in the Zimmerwald Conference of antiwar socialists after the collapse of the Socialist International. At the time of the February revolution in 1917, he was in Switzerland and returned to Russia in May, informing the Kautskys of his departure in a letter: “Dear friends! Live well! I am on the journey again. Marx and science must now become practical in another way.”

Once back in Russia, he joined the Mezhduraiontsy (“Interdistrict”) group whose best-known figure was Trotsky. During the summer of 1917, the Mezhduraiontsy merged with Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and Riazanov became one of the most prominent orators and trade union activists in the run-up to the October Revolution. He was elected to the presidency of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets and became an executive member of the Central Trade Union Council of Russia.

In the period leading up to October, Riazanov opposed the plan for armed insurrection proposed by Vladimir Lenin, which he saw as a “putsch.” After the Bolshevik seizure of power, he worked at the People’s Education Commissariat (Narkompros) under the direction of Anatoly Lunacharsky. He dissented from the line of the Bolshevik leadership on several important questions — opposing the disbandment of the Constituent Assembly at the beginning of 1918, arguing against the use of the death penalty, and calling for a multiparty system. He also opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the war with Germany.

On the union issue, Riazanov defended the autonomy of the unions. He fought for free expression within the party as a quixotic crusader against bureaucracy. His intellectual and militant prestige meant that no one had the authority to censor or expel him — not even Lenin. But little by little he was neutralized.

During the party congress in 1924, he declared: “Without the right and responsibility to express our opinions, this cannot be called the Communist Party.” In a speech at the Institute of the Red Professors, he set out the following credo: “I am not a Bolshevik, I am not a Menshevik, and I am not a Leninist. I am only a Marxist, and as a Marxist, I am a communist.”

Studying Marx as a Marxist

In 1920, the Central Committee proposed creating a “Museum of Marxism,” an idea that Riazanov transformed into something else: a research institute, a laboratory in which historians and activists could study the birth, theory, and practice of Marxism. In 1921, Lenin approved the founding of the Marx-Engels Institute (MEI), which would operate in Moscow’s Dolgorukov Palace.

Riazanov believed that “Marxism” (if such a thing exists) could not be understood or regenerated in isolation from its material-historical environment. The MEI would study the Marxist classics by relating them to the context of anarchism, socialism, and the European labor movement. Its director did not succumb to the authoritarian spirit taking hold of the Bolshevik Party.

At the MEI, Riazanov created an international network of correspondents to search for and acquire rare books and manuscripts in all European capitals. According to a balance sheet from 1925, the store of books contained 15,628 volumes. Between 1925 and 1930, the number of original photocopied documents increased from 40,000 to 175,000, including 55,000 documents written by Marx or Engels.

By 1930, the MEI library included 450,000 volumes. Riazanov’s work, and the financial support he was able to secure for it, testifies not only to his abilities but also to the support he enjoyed among the elite of the Bolshevik apparatus. In addition to Lenin, he had the unconditional backing of Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Mikhail Kalinin.

Riazanov immediately launched his plan for publishing the complete works of Marx and Engels. In 1923, he traveled to Berlin to sign a collaboration agreement with the party archive of the German Social Democrats. At the fifth congress of the Communist International in 1924, he presented his vision for the MEGA project:

Our main task is to publish a complete and technically perfect edition in a couple of thousand copies for all major libraries. But we also have another task before us, which is no less important. We can hardly expect that an edition of fifty volumes (and it is very difficult for it to be anything less than that) is within everyone’s reach. We have to make a selection of the work of Marx and Engels for all countries. This selection will contain all the most important works of Marx and Engels describing all phases of their intellectual development. The first part, the general part, must be an edition for all countries. Then comes the second part, adapted to the national needs of the different countries.

Another goal of Riazanov was to publish a comprehensive intellectual biography of Marx. He was never able to complete this work, although he did publish a popular introduction to the life and thought of Marx and Engels in 1923 and a collection of essays that gathered his prerevolutionary writings.

“Where Is My Portrait?”

In 1927, Riazanov received the Lenin Prize, and he later became a full member of the Academy of Sciences. By 1930, he seemed to have reached the zenith of his career as an internationally recognized figure.

In ten years, he had transformed the MEI into the world center for Marx studies and European social history. The institute was a mecca for researchers who came from all over the world, including the US philosopher Sidney Hook and Friedrich Pollock of Germany’s Frankfurt School. It was visited by personalities such as Clara Zetkin, Emile Vandervelde, and Henri Barbusse.

Victor Serge sketched the following portrait of Riazanov in his memoirs:

In the Bolshevik party, his independence of spirit was respected. He was the only one who had incessantly raised his voice against the death penalty, even during the terror, incessantly demanding the strict limitation of the rights of the Cheka and then the OGPU [Joint State Political Directorate]. Heretics of all kinds, Menshevik socialists or Oppositionists of Right or Left, found peace and work in his institute, as long as they had a love of knowledge. He was still the man who had said in the middle of a conference: “I am not one of those old Bolsheviks who for twenty years Lenin treated as old imbeciles.”

Serge described the impression Riazanov made when he encountered him at first hand: “[C]orpulent, with strong arms, thick white beard and mustache, tense gaze, Olympian forehead, stormy temperament, ironic speech.”

Stalin visited the MEI in 1927. Upon seeing the portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, he asked: “Where is my portrait?” Riazanov replied: “Marx and Engels are my teachers; Lenin was my comrade. But what are you to me?” In 1929, at a party conference, he stated: “The Politburo no longer needs any Marxists.” He did not participate in the personality cult of Stalin and chose his collaborators on the basis of their scientific ability, even contacting Stalin’s great opponent Trotsky when he was in internal exile to ask him to review translations and correct MEGA printing proofs.

In 1930, the Soviet press celebrated Riazanov’s sixtieth birthday as a national event and a Festschrift was produced in his honor. Nikolay Miliutin compared each volume published by the MEI to “a bomb that explodes over the heads of those who distort, pervert and falsify Marxism.”

An official statement from the Central Committee, which Stalin signed, praised Riazanov as “a tireless fighter for the triumph of the ideas of the great masters of the international proletariat: Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Party newspapers described him as “the most eminent Marxologist of our times,” a man who had given “more than forty years of his life to the cause of the working classes” and “organized a scientific institute that is the pride of our revolutionary science.”

The publication of the Communist International, Inprecor, referred to Riazanov as “the most important and renowned Marxist scholar of our time.” Yet beneath the pageantry, the tectonic plates of factional struggle were moving against him. Stalin had already begun recruiting a younger group of academics to campaign against what he called “all the manure that has accumulated in philosophy and natural sciences.” This campaign included Riazanov on its hit list: “We must not forget that we must produce Riazanov’s departure from the MEI.”


A large-scale operation of the secret police (OGPU) began in December 1930, targeting a supposed center of former Mensheviks in the state administration who were accused of wanting to bankrupt the Soviet economy. One of the first detainees was Isaak Illich Rubin, a historian and economist on the MEI staff, who made a false confession under pressure from his interrogators. Riazanov was accused of hiding Menshevik correspondence and anti-Soviet documents given to him by Rubin.

Riazanov was outraged to learn about Rubin’s arrest and pressed for a meeting with Stalin. When he went to the Kremlin on February 12, 1931, Stalin was waiting for him with his loyal allies Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich as well as the head of the OGPU, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky.

Riazanov demanded to see Rubin’s confession or the alleged Menshevik documents, which never appeared. For his part, Stalin told Riazanov to hand over the documents he was supposed to have hidden. The latter retorted that there were no such papers in the MEI archive: “You won’t find them anywhere unless you’ve put them there yourself!”

The OGPU detained Riazanov in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, accusing him of having received packages from the phantasmal “Menshevik International Center.” The Politburo moved to remove him from his position as director of the MEI, and 131 of the institute’s 243 staff members were also expelled. In April 1931, the OGPU decided to send Riazanov, due to his health, into exile in Saratov on the Volga.

At the time of Riazanov’s downfall, only eleven MEGA volumes out of a projected forty-two had appeared, while seven more were in progress, including the hitherto unknown Grundrisse. Riazanov’s replacement as the head of the MEI was the apparatchik Vladimir V. Adoratskij. Adoratakij delivered a speech in the year of Riazanov’s arrest which defined the editorial work of his predecessor as “a direct betrayal of the cause of the proletariat,” accusing him of having privileged the publication of “those works of Marx and Engels when they were still young Hegelians.”

Some of the work initiated by Riazanov’s team was carried on under his successor, with six of the volumes prepared by the MEI published between 1931 and 1935, before all publishing activity finally stopped in 1936 as the purges began in earnest. The last death rattle came with the separate publication in 1940 of Marx’s Grundrisse manuscripts. Little by little, Stalin replaced the critical-historical publishing company with a series of isolated, scattered publications, and any form of free, dispassionate Marxist scholarship ended in the USSR.

Into the Flames

While this was happening, Riazanov lived on the banks of the Volga, condemned to misery and hunger, to mental and physical decay. Libraries and publishers were ordered to purge his works and his editions, removing all trace of the person who had institutionalized the study of Marx and Engels in the first avowedly Marxist state.

He barely scraped a living by translating small texts for the local university, sharing his poor rations with starving people during the famine of 1932–33. In 1934, the Politburo briefly allowed Riazanov to travel to Moscow to care for his sick wife. According to Kalinin, his former protector and admirer, Stalin offered a compromise whereby Riazanov would write a statement of public repentance, acknowledging his guilt in the “Menshevik-Trotskyist” conspiracy, in return for which he would be fully rehabilitated.

However, Riazanov rejected the proposal and demanded an immediate review of his case. He was soon sent back to Saratov from Moscow again, this time for good. When Stalin launched the Great Terror, Riazanov was arrested on the night of July 22, 1937. The record of his interrogation by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) shows that Riazanov refused to play the game of denouncing alleged spies and traitors and denied the false accusations against him again and again.

On January 19, 1938, the Saratov prosecutor general issued a six-page indictment of Riazanov: among other complaints, he was accused of “extreme personal hostility towards Comrade Stalin.” On January 21, he was tried behind closed doors in a session that lasted barely fifteen minutes and was sentenced to death for supposedly belonging to a “Trotskyist terrorist organization” and engaging in “the dissemination of slanderous inventions about the party and the Soviet power.” His execution took place the same day.

Riazanov’s wife, Ana Levovna, was also arrested and imprisoned in a gulag, from which she was released in 1943, without knowing the final fate of her husband. In July 1957, she wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev asking about her husband’s whereabouts. Both Riazanovs were officially rehabilitated in 1958. It was only in March 1990, during the dying days of the USSR, that Riazanov was posthumously reinstated to the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

The day after his execution, NKVD agents arrived at his humble dacha to confiscate his personal property, destroying what was considered useless. They loaded all of his books into the back of a truck, scattering his remaining papers and notes on the floor to fuel the fire, including everything on his study desk.

Among them there was a portrait of the young Engels with an inscription in the handwriting of Marx’s daughter, Laura Lafargue, with whom he had worked before the war. “Who is this?” one of the militiamen asked Riazanov’s granddaughter. “It’s Frederich Engels,” she replied. “And who is Engels?” the NKVD man responded as he threw the daguerreotype into the flames.