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An Interview with George Levy

Please could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Krasnogorsk Archive circa 1918

My name is George Levy, I am a third generation American, a product of Italian and Russian immigrants who found their way to Gary, Indiana.  Gary is a town established by U.S. Steel Company and one that once held over 50 European nationalities.  One of those immigrants was my great grandmother Dora Dybenko Burzov, sister of Pavel Dybenko, who is the subject of my research.   I attended The National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City then finished my education at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.  In 1988 I began my investigation into the life of Pavel Dybenko, a journey that has taken me to archive centers held at universities in America as well as others in Europe and Russia.

How did you begin your research back in 1988?  What was your first port of call when you decided to find out more about Dybenko?

My great grandmother Dora Dybenko Burzov passed away in 1988; from her estate I was informed I was to receive two photos and one book.  The book was Ivan Zhigalov’s biographical sketch on Dybenko published in Moscow in 1972 and the photos were of a bust commemorating Dybenko in the families’ hometown of Novozybkov; the other was of Dybenko with his mother Anna Denisovna.  I was living in Austin, Texas at the time…I first contacted the University of Texas Russian Studies offices and began asking questions.

Did you find that those early steps into independent scholarship were well received by the Russianists you spoke to?  In those 22 years, have you found the academic community supportive?

Quite the opposite actually, most Russian nationals I spoke to have never heard of Pavel Dybenko or if they had it was often in a negative light.  Dybenko was often described as being a “fanatic” of Lenin’s designs;

Ilya Breyman, a Russian national studying at Georgetown University, shared with me in 2003: “The revolution was planned by idealists, accomplished by fanatics, while its fruits were gained by scoundrels”.  In Ilya’s opinion Dybenko was one of those fanatics who accomplished the October uprising.  By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Soviet rule was part of Russian history most Russian nationals would rather forget.

Professor Emeritus Dr. Norman Saul from the University of Kansas, author of Sailors in Revolt, a study on the revolutionary Baltic Fleet published in 1978, is the most influential academic who has provided immeasurable encouragement saying in part, “good luck on resurrecting Pavel Dybenko’s true story”, and, “good luck with breaking new ground in Russian history”.  Dr. Charters Wynn from the University of Texas has played an important role as well.  I would like to mention Dr. Katy Turton from Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland who allowed me the good fortune to present my work at the 2010 BASEES conference and finally, Dr. Sharon Kowalsky from Texas A/M Commerce for providing me the honor to chair a panel at the 2010 Southern Conference on Slavic Studies held at the University of Florida.

How have you found the experience of attending an academic conference?  Do you feel that the academic conference format is welcoming to independent researchers?

Although I was invited as a result of my research and investigation, my knowledge on Pavel Dybenko, I was quite aware of the struggle and dedication it took to acquire a doctoral degree.  With respect for the other attendees I humbled myself and did my best to honor the opportunity I was given.  Absolutely, I feel that academic conferences are a wonderful format for independent researchers…but I must advise, one should have a study which is informative and can bear the scrutiny of a roomful of intellectuals who might very well have a good deal of knowledge regarding one’s presentations.

I’d like to talk in more depth about the idea of the independent scholar, and specifically the self-taught independent scholar, working on a historical topic without historical training.  Do you consider yourself – for example – a historian, a biographer, an amateur researcher?  How do you feel your work fits with that done by academic historians on the same time period?

To be quite frank, I believe there is great truth in the viewpoint of it being very difficult to be a historian without proper research training.  As for me, at this time I would definitely consider myself a historian… although it wasn’t always that way.  Initially, I probably was what one might consider an amateur researcher as my work began with an innocent look into a family member’s past.  However, the initial inquiry about Pavel Dybenko ascended into an immersion into pre-Soviet and early Soviet era history.  Pavel Dybenko’s life unfolded a series of questions; one being asked after the previous was answered.  Curiosity demands answers and there appeared to be too many questions.  Even today when Pavel Dybenko’s name is brought up for discussion there are contradictions relating to his actual contributions… was he a hero or murderer?  As a descendant, I was interested in knowing.  As a historian, I feel obliged to provide the historical record with findings, which run contrary in some instances to universally held opinions on Pavel Dybenko, Alexandra Kollontai, and the October Revolution.

That unfolding series of questions is an excellent way to describe the research process.  What are your questions about Dybenko right now?  And what questions do people most often ask you about him?

At this point in the process I have uncovered many reasonable explanations of questions I have had through written word and eyewitness accounts.  Questions such as: Why isn’t there more work on the history of the Baltic Fleet, its political agitation, and its revolts and rebellions between the years 1905 through to 1917? Why did history not reflect Pavel Dybenko’s true contributions as the leader and chairman of Tsentrobalt?  How did Dybenko’s position on the Treaty of Brest Litovsk create a need for change within the Bolshevik Government in the spring of 1918?   Why did history not have a clearer view on the relationship and marriage of Dybenko and Kollontai?  The beat goes on.

The most asked question I receive from others is either, “Who?” or “Wasn’t he a fanatic of Lenin’s and more infamously known as the drunk and coward who retreated haphazardly from Narva?

What do you usually tell the people who ask those questions?

Pavel at his May 1918 Trial in Moscow - Getty Research Institute

I often share that the history of Russia is not always as it appears to be.  In this case, the history of a peasant (Dybenko) who ascended to the leadership of the revolutionary fleet and held an active role in the fight for social justice.  More importantly, I share about the patriotism for the revolution, as Bessie Beatty called the political fervor amongst the sailors under Pavel Dybenko’s leadership.  Commander M.G. Saunders wrote in 1958, “The bluejackets of the Baltic Fleet, whom Trotsky once called the ‘glory and pride of the revolution’, became the guardians of the revolutionary conscience in its purest forms.”

I agree with G.P. Maximoff and Noam Chomskys’ views and believe Pavel Dybenko’s life and role during this time goes a long way in substantiating their ideas.   Pavel Dybenko could well have become one of Russia’s martyrs, perhaps his legacy would have been better if the government would have killed him in May of 1918 (Dybenko’s trial before the revolutionary tribunal on the matter of Narva).  Dybenko was a great man who would bring freedom to the people of Russia alongside Kollontai who herself desired a new freedom for the women of Russia.  A bold statement backed by Dybenko’s own writings in 1918.

In January: (Part of The Democratization of the Fleet authored by Dybenko)

“All sailors of the Navy have the right to be members of any political, national, religious, economic, or professional organization, society or union.  They have the right, freely and openly, to express and profess by word or mouth, in writing or in print, their political, religious, and other views.”

In April:

“My revolutionary conscience doesn’t allow me to stay totally passive while there are threats from both internal and external enemies to everything we conquered with so much blood.  I promise to appear in court and respond in front of judges and the people”

In May:

“I am not afraid of a verdict for myself, I am afraid of a verdict for the October revolution and its achievements; gained by the cost of the proletarian blood.  We as a nation cannot let personal conflicts and intrigues eliminate someone who disagrees with the policy of the majority in government.  No matter what the verdict is found by this tribunal, the sailors know the truth, and I will remain in the first rows of the revolution because the sailors promoted me and they still trust me.”

Pavel accused Lenin of his constant conciliations in regard to his dealings with the Germans and his inability to finish with the chaos and ruin in the country.  Pavel rebukes and holds to shame the actions of Lenin’s governmental Bolshevik-compromisers that each day are handing over the gains achieved in October.  Pavel openly opposed the new government and called on the workers and peasants to solve “their own destiny.”

With regard to Dybenko’s statement in January:  Pavel Dybenko was writing into law the freedoms desired, not unlike those freedoms we share here in the western worlds, by the sailors and others as a result of the revolution.

G. P. Maximoff’s The Guillotine at Work outlines and cites through official decree’s Lenin’s words and deeds during the same time.  As a result of the revolution for Lenin, “from his very first day in power Lenin launched upon his infamous terroristic course”.

Pavel Dybenko also is in opposition regarding the Treaty of Brest Litovsk.  Dybenko writes for the Kommunist along with Bukharin, Kollontai, and others.  Kollontai is in Helsingfors addressing the fleet to, in the least, vote for a no confidence resolution against the government for its position on the Treaty.  Dybenko is ignored in Central Committee meetings; Lenin ‘sanctions’ him and does not allow for him to speak until AFTER the resolution was voted upon.  Lenin fears Dybenko will raise an army against the Germans…and if Dybenko knew of the terms with regard to the fleet he certainly would have.  As it was, Dybenko with many others loudly protests…the difference was Lenin knew it was Dybenko who controlled the “armed fist of the revolution”.

Pavel Dybenko, The Leader of the Revolutionary Fleet was running contrary to Lenin’s designs.  During the end of February 1918, Lenin moves to remove Pavel from power.  Plans for Trotsky to take over the military are made. The “so-called” Narva incident (an interesting series of events in its own right) is alleged.   Lenin has Dybenko arrested, first for his opposition to the Treaty…then officially for the “events” of Narva.  Kollontai is horrified and terribly upset.  After being ‘bailed’ out of jail Pavel communicates the quote attributed for April.

The last quote comes at the end of the Trial or Delo of Dybenko in May of 1918.  Lenin and Trotsky call for his life no less than five times… yet the revolutionary tribunal finds him not guilty.

What’s the next step for you and Dybenko?

Dybenko and Kollontai

I just recently moved to Corpus Christi, a small coastal town in south Texas to finish my biographical sketch on Dybenko.  With a bit of luck I will be able to begin to “resurrect the true story” of Dybenko and with it an acknowledgement of the libertarian uprising and accomplishment otherwise known as Great October.  My findings contradict certain understandings of 1917 and provide a critical overview of the discussed time period.  Findings historians and the people of Russia can utilize while discussing Lenin’s revolution and other revolutionary consciousness’.  As my investigation finds itself to completion, I intend to be available to speak at interested universities on Dybenko’s place in Russian History while also displaying original works by Pavel Dybenko and other archival materials such as films, photo’s and writings.

At the upcoming 2011 BASEES Conference, I might have the opportunity to have an informal discussion with Alexander Kerensky’s grandson as he also is interested in re-evaluating Kerensky’s place in history as I have attempted for Dybenko.  The two had an infamous rivalry and competitive interaction throughout the year 1917 ending with Dybenko’s role in the capture of Gatchina Palace and with it the surrender of the Cossacks and the then Provisional Government.

Finally, we always ask our guests: please could you recommend us five favourite books, with a little explanation for each one?  (They don’t have to be about history)

City of the Century: A History of Gary, Indiana

James B. Lane,  Indiana Press 1978

City of the Century provides an interesting look into one of twentieth century America’s greatest hopes and impending failures.  A city founded on the idea of it becoming “A City of the Century”, a “Miracle City” for all who would come.  Ultimately, Gary would not live up to its founder’s dreams and most recently continues the decline it has been in for some thirty years.  Issues such as collective bargaining are discussed as well as the rise of “Black Power” and the crisis that follows both.

The Soul of the Russian Revolution

Moissaye J. Olgin

Henry Holt and Company, 1917

The Soul of the Russian Revolution provides great clarity on the movements of the masses regarding the great desire of social progress.  I received an understanding of the foundations which would settle and support the inevitable revolutions of early twentieth century Russia.

The Guillotine at Work, Vol.1

G.P. Maximoff

Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund, Chicago 1975

The Guillotine at Work
by Maximoff contains some brilliant observations of the writings, methods, and actions utilized by the early Bolshevik/Communist Government.  Suggesting Lenin perpetuated the biggest fraud committed against Russia.

Young Russia: The Genesis of Russian Radicalism in the 1860s

Abbot Gleason

Viking Press, New York 1980

Young Russia
is a fascinating book relating to its reader the background in which the revolutions were decidedly a result of.  Gleason stresses in his writings how radical views and their reactions are interconnected exploring the reasons why people were motivated and to what extent they shaped their views.  Another writing describing the creation of the foundation which will support the weight of Great October.

The Russian Revolution

Robert Goldston

Fawcett Premier 1966

Although a short read, Goldston does an excellent job in relating to his reader the history of not only the Revolution but of Russia as well.  One of my favorite observations of the Revolution second perhaps to Chamberlin’s The Russian Revolution. 

The photographs in this post are from George Levy’s private collection.

2 comments on “An Interview with George Levy

  1. Moira
    July 20, 2010

    I’m afraid I was in the “Who?” camp. I’ve never heard of Pavel Dybenko before …

    Would I be right in assuming that Russian history is like an iceberg … there is much more to be discovered than is known? I mean, I know that’s true of all ‘history’. but I get the feeling that it’s probably more true of Russian history?

  2. Jackie
    July 20, 2010

    Like Moira, I’d never heard of Dybenko before & at one time I was reading a lot of Russian writing(though not in the original, of course). He certainly led an action packed life & I bet he would be interesting to read more about. Especially since he was so influential in Russian history, though he doesn’t get credit for it.
    I admire Mr. Levy’s dedication to the subject, especially since he didn’t start from a scholastic type background. There is much to be said of amateur research, even in this modern era. And how cool is it that it’s also part of his family history!

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