1916 Dublin Easter Rising: The Soviet Union And 20th Century Anti-Imperialism

Mick Hall yesterday @ Organized Rage praises the Easter Rising.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Dublin Easter Rising one of the most influential political events of the 20th century. The English ruling class kept the Rising a dark secret from it's own people, who were then embroiled in an unnecessary and bloody war. Understanding full well this call to arms by Irish revolutionaries could {and did} reverberate throughout the British Empire and beyond.

The Proclamation which Pádraig Pearse read out in front of the GPO building on that late April morning, would still be regarded as radical document today and has James Connolly's socialist fingerprints all over it.  It was this proclamation, along with the courage of the volunteers, the heroism of their leaders as they met death head on, and the crass stupidity of the English ruling class which made what happened that week a seminal event.

The first part of the proclamation is not only a call to arms but it also demands equality for women:
Irishmen and women: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom. Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.

It's followed by proclaiming the Irish Republic a Sovereign Independent State, which claims its legitimacy from the Irish people's centuries of struggle against foreign usurpers:

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.

It then takes a swipe at the imperialist usurpers and points out under the Republic all citizens will be guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities which have been previously denied them by an alien Government:

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irish Woman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Clearly when the British government executed the leading figures who planned and led the rising, it wasn’t just a vengeful act, it was a ruthless and deliberate attempt to neuter militant republicanism for a generation. In this they failed. The proclamation's signatories aware the Rising was unlikely to succeed and their lives would be forfeit, willed the flame of independence to a generation of leaders who had been gestating within their ranks and in whom they had enough confidence to finish what they started:

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.

The members of the Provisional government then allow Pádraig Pearse to sign off with one of his rhetorical homilies:

We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called. 

The signatures of the seven men then appear.

It's  a worthy document but we should not forget whilst deserving admiration the men and women of 1916 were of their times. While Ireland is still partitioned, which would have been anathema to all of the proclamations signatories. Today there are in the UK and Ireland democratic avenues of struggle available to right such wrongs, they may not be perfect but they do exist.

To conclude Anne Enright and  Roddy Doyle reflect on the Easter Rising 100 years on:

"All nations have founding myths. I suppose I would prefer to have a revolution in my country’s past than a monarchy. I would prefer to move on from Catholic nationalism than from fascist dictatorship."

Roddy Doyle:

Today, I love the complications. Many of the men in the GPO were actually English. I found that out only a few months ago. The children of Irish parents, they’d come over to Dublin from London, Manchester and Liverpool, to avoid conscription. The best named was Johnny “Blimey” O’Connor. 
Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who delivered the surrender, was gay – as were many of the women involved. I read about that last week. 
One of the leaders, Joseph Plunkett, wore spurs but lacked a horse. Peter Pearse, the president of the new Republic, cycled in to the Rising with a sword on his belt. These lads had style. In a lull in the fighting, or before it got going, they sat together and discussed which member of which European royal family they would invite to become king of Ireland. They opted for the Kaiser’s youngest son. Prince Joachim Franz Humbert of Prussia nearly became the first king of the Republic of Ireland.
An Irish cockney called Blimey, a gay woman walking alongside Pearse as he surrendered, two men who would soon die for the Republic earnestly selecting a monarch that would share their sense of style. I love my country.
Enough said.

Below Brendan McGeever, looks at James Connolly's son Roddy's journey in 1920 to attend the Second World Congress of the Communist International in Petrograd and the impact the Easter Rising had within the Soviet Union.

Lenin (centre) with James Connolly's son Roddy (centre-right) at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, Petrograd, July 1920.

It is early July, 1920. Roddy Connolly, teenage participant in the Easter Rising, is travelling without a passport in a cargo boat through the Norwegian fiords. The destination: Soviet Russia. As they edge towards the northern tips of the Kola Peninsula, the boat is blown off course by an incoming storm, pushing them some 250 miles towards the North Pole. After bouts of seasickness, they eventually dock in a besieged Murmansk, where Connolly begins a three-day rail journey across Civil War-torn Russia. Finally, he reaches revolutionary Petrograd, just in time for the opening of the Second World Congress of the Communist International. On arrival he is warmly greeted by Vladimir Lenin, who informs him that not only has he read his father’s book Labour and Irish History, but that he rates him “head and shoulders” above his contemporaries in the European socialist movement.(1)

Roddy’s father was
James Connolly, the Scottish-Irish revolutionary who led the Easter Rising of 1916. Though carried out by a relatively small number of poorly armed soldiers, the Rising had consequences all out of proportion to the military strength of its participants. It set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to the formation of an independent Irish Republic. As we approach the 100-year anniversary of this historic event, there is a chapter that remains untold: the story of how the Rising was remembered in the Soviet Union.

The Easter Rising caught the imagination of Bolshevik revolutionaries as soon as news of the events travelled across Europe. Leon Trotsky recalled the impact the Rising had on him in a letter to James Connolly’s daughter, Nora Connolly, in 1936: “The tragic fate of your courageous father met me in Paris during the war. I bear him faithfully in my remembrance”. Other Russian revolutionaries were similarly moved. In 1916 the Bolshevik Platon Kerzhentsev was living in New York in the same boarding house as the Irish poet and novelist Padraic Colum. When news of the Rising broke, Kerzhentsev offered financial assistance to Colum so that he could return to Ireland. Kerzhentsev’s connection with the Rising would be a lasting one: after the October Revolution of 1917 he established himself as a leading Soviet authority on Irish history, publishing various pamphlets and monographs that explained the Easter Rising for a Soviet readership.
Lenin and the Easter Rising

The most famous Soviet encounter with the Rising was Lenin’s. As Connolly’s army took the General Post Office in Dublin and raised the
Irish tricolour, Lenin was in the throes of writing his theory of imperialism and national self-determination. Sensing that events in Ireland were confirming his new perspective, Lenin embraced the Rising as a decisive “blow against the power of English imperialism”. He was therefore aghast when fellow Bolsheviks like Karl Radek denounced the Rising as a “putsch” carried out by “petty-bourgeois” nationalist dreamers.

This dispute was far from trivial, for it went right to the heart of one of the key problems facing the Bolsheviks: how to develop a revolutionary strategy in an imperial context such as Russia, where national and class questions were fused. This became an acutely practical issue when the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, for they were suddenly faced with the difficult task of unifying the multinational Soviet state. Interestingly, the Easter Rising became a touchstone in these Party debates. Time and time again, the example of Ireland was raised in speeches by leading Bolsheviks who promoted the principle of national self-determination. Lenin eventually won the day, and in 1922 a number of quasi-independent Soviet republics were established. The Easter Rising thus played its part in the formation of the Soviet Union.

Despite having its detractors, the Easter Rising enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception in the Soviet Union from the 1920s onwards. When the first Soviet accounts of the Rising were published, they invariably noted the “heroism” and “courage” of those who participated in it. During the early years of the Soviet state, the Rising also served as an important, symbolic resource of hope pointing to the possibilities of revolution in Europe.
The Easter Rising in an era of decolonization

Yet as it became clear that revolution had failed to materialize in the west, Bolshevik attention shifted towards the liberation movements of the Global South. In this changing context, post-War Soviet interpretations of the Easter Rising went through a subtle transformation. Now reframed as a specifically anti-colonial struggle akin to those taking place in Nigeria, Egypt and India, the Rising was repositioned within a Soviet lens whose gaze was directed at the decolonizing world.

Soviet interest in the Easter Rising had always been steady. Between 1918 and 1963 at least 25 specific works on the Rising were published in Soviet Russia. Things really took off in 1966, when the Rising’s 50th anniversary was celebrated at the 23rd Party Congress and various other meetings across Moscow. Two years later, the centennial of James Connolly’s birth was similarly marked in the Soviet capital, and in 1969, a Russian translation of Connolly’s writings was even published by the official Party publishing house. Amidst the new-found interest, Soviet biographies of Connolly were issued and doctoral dissertations were written in Moscow universities on the significance of the Easter Rising.
Translating the Easter Rising into Bolshevik Russian

Yet, despite all the enthusiasm, Soviet writers had long struggled to get to grips with the complexities of class, religion and nationality in the Irish context. When HG Wells arrived at the Kremlin in 1920, Party leader Grigorii Zinoviev quizzed him on the Easter Rising, asking “which do you consider are the proletarians, the Sinn Feiners of the Ulstermen?” According to Wells, Zinoviev could make neither head nor tale of the Irish situation.

One of the key problems facing those trying to render a ‘Soviet’ interpretation of the Easter Rising was its apparent religious character. When the Irish Proclamation was read outside the General Post Office in Dublin in Easter 1916, it began with the words “In the name of God…” Soviet writers tended to avoid quoting these overtly pious lines.

Settling on a suitably Soviet name for the ‘Easter Rising’ also posed great difficulties. The Russian term for ‘Easter’, especially if used in its adjectival form (paskhal’noe), risked framing the event as a distinctly religious event. Various alternatives were therefore adopted, including ‘The Irish Uprising’, ‘The Dublin Uprising’ and ‘Bloody Easter’. By 1966, some Soviet writers had simply taken to calling it the ‘Red Easter’. In this way, the Rising was translated into the language of the Russian Revolution: the
Irish Citizen Army became the ‘Red Guards’, the British Army the ‘White Terror’.James Connolly: the ‘Irish Lenin’

Given Lenin’s high praise of James Connolly, it is not surprising that most Soviet treatments of the Easter Rising placed great emphasis on him. In the 1960s, when the Rising had become increasingly revered, even mythologized in the Bolshevik press, Soviet writers were routinely referring to Connolly as the “Irish Lenin”.

Yet earlier Soviet assessments had not been so favourable towards Connolly. In 1936 the aforementioned Kerzhentsev described Connolly as an “un-Marxist” radical who had failed to “overcome his syndicalist errors”. In the Second Edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, Connolly was similarly rebuked for having failed to distinguish between the “proletarian” and “petty bourgeois” elements of the Rising.

Not all treatments of Connolly were so overtly political. A 1966 article in the Soviet periodical Ogonek described Connolly as a “muscular, stocky man with a broad face and eyes that always shone”, almost as if he was one of the heroic Soviet monuments lining the streets of Moscow. Elsewhere, he was described as a working class guy who “liked a laugh, was a keen dancer and enjoyed a pint of beer in the evening”.

Legend has it that Lenin spoke English with an Irish accent. What is clear, however, is that the Bolsheviks read Irish history with a Soviet inflection.

By Brendan McGeever, an academic at Birkbeck, University of London.

This article was first published on Open Democracy

1 This account is based on Charlie McGuire’s vivid description of Connolly’s trip to Russia. See C. McGuire, Roddy Connolly and the Struggle for Socialism in Ireland, Cork: Cork University Press, 2008, pp. 20, 31-32.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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