Zuzenko fired up workers of Australia and the world

December 1, 2013

Undesirable: Captain Zuzenko & the Workers of Australia & the World
By Kevin Windle
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013
274 pages, $39.95 (pb)

On November 7, 1917, when the Winter Palace was stormed in Petrograd, sealing the victory of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Mikhailovich Zuzenko, one of the revolution’s most loyal servants, faced a local court in Ingham in northern Queensland. He was working on the canefields and was fined 10 shillings for losing his “aliens registration certificate”.

Zuzenko was tragically to pay a much heavier price two decades later under Stalin, writes Australian National University academic Kevin Windle in Undesirable.

The young Latvian revolutionary had hurled himself into Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution, dodging the post-uprising repression by escaping to Australia where thousands of other Russian exiles and job-seekers were concentrated in the labour-hungry workplaces of Queensland.

Zuzenko was one of their leaders in the militant and anti-war Union of Russian Workers and the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Attacked by violent patriots in Brisbane and arrested for carrying a banned red flag, Zuzenko was deported to Russia in 1920. The former anarchist joined the Bolsheviks, now seeing anarchism as pretty much the same thing as Bolshevism, not least in the proclamation that the “complete abolition of the state” was the end goal of the Moscow-based Communist International.

Zuzenko’s Australian experience impressed Lenin and he was assigned to establish an Australian communist party. He successfully forged a party from the rival claimants before being arrested and again deported in 1922.

In Russia, Zuzenko found an exhausted socialist state where idealism was in reluctant retreat against the chaos and dislocation caused by civil war, invasion, international blockades, political isolation and economic backwardness.

Undaunted, Zuzenko became captain of the Smolny in the Soviet merchant fleet on the Leningrad-Hamburg-London route. Zuzenko relished his role as unofficial envoy of Soviet Russia, once teaching an on-board English jazz band the tune of the socialist anthem, the “Internationale” ― to the delight of the dockside German audience asides from fuming Nazi brownshirts.

Zuzenko was not to have known it at the time, however, but his travel to capitalist countries ― along with his anarchist past, his ship’s costly accidents and long lay-ups for repairs and his prominence as an “Old Bolshevik” ― helped fuel paranoid Stalinist allegations against him.

It did Zuzenko no good to denounce, at a crew meeting in 1937, the “vile Trotskyites and Rightist renegades” who were framed at Stalin’s Show Trials in Moscow. Peril awaited even those most admiring of Stalin.

Awareness of the bankruptcy of the Stalinist regime came too late to Zuzenko. Shortly after complaining in private of the “fascism” sweeping Soviet Russia, he was shot during the purges of 1938 as a “British spy”.

Windle regards Zuzenko’s tragic end as the shameful murder of “a brave and lifelong revolutionary”. Windle shows a Zuzenko who, as a journalist, may have been woodenly didactic but who made up for his lack of literary flair with the energy and drive of a tireless, committed and sincere organiser.

As even his Australian secret-police taggers conceded, Zuzenko’s “fluency and forcefulness as a speaker” rightly scored him high on political effectiveness.

Zuzenko’s political competencies, however, came at the cost of a sometimes divisive bluntness when berating local communists for ideological deviation, organisational incompetence and lack of revolutionary ardour.

Zuzenko, a veteran of high political and industrial drama in revolutionary Russia, also tactlessly vented his frustration with the “apathy and inactivity”, and xenophobia, of the Anglo-Saxon working class.

In the end, however, what betrayed Zuzenko’s socialist hopes were not these hurdles but Stalin’s counter-revolution.

Windle, despite his warm regard for Zuzenko, is dismissive of his socialism ― an ideology, says Windle, which may once have had some potency but which “now belongs firmly in the past”, a “misguided conviction” of purely historical interest.

To so blithely dismiss what inspired Zuzenko, with no consideration of the new language, forms and political fronts of a still-evolving socialist politics, is to betray Zuzenko a second time.

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