V. A. Ter-Vaganian

Life and Works of a Young Bolshevik Intellectual


Ter-Vaganian joined the Bolshevik Party in 1912, while still a teenager. Within five years, he participated in the forefront of revolutionary events in Moscow. By 1922, he became the main editor of the major theoretical journal, “Under the Banner of Marxism.” Although highly active in party affairs, by 1923 Ter-Vaganian also managed to publish a lengthy study of the “father of Russian Marxism,” Georgii Plekhanov.

By selecting Plekhanov as a focus of his theoretical work, Ter-Vaganian showed considerable courage and independence of mind. When Plekhanov died in 1918, not long after returning from long political exile in Europe, he had evolved into an open enemy of the Bolshevik Party and the October Revolution. The evaluation of his life and works was a serious theoretical task which many prominent Bolsheviks approached with great caution. Fortunately, both Lenin and Trotsky wrote tributes to Plekhanov’s life, and Lenin encouraged the publication of Plekhanov’s collected works. Ter-Vaganian emerged not only as one of Plekhanov’s first biographers, but also as the person to publish the first scholarly bibliography of his works.

The history of the Bolshevik Party during the first decade of the Soviet Union is exceedingly complex, and Ter-Vaganian’s life was inseparably bound up with all the major inner-party struggles of the time. By 1923, he joined forces with an grouping inside the party headed by Leon Trotsky, which was actively fighting alarming signs of bureaucratic degeneration in the Soviet Union during the first years of the New Economic Policy (NEP). By 1924, when Stalin and Bukharin announced the policy of building "socialism in one country," the Left Opposition around Trotsky fought a prolonged battle in defense of the perspective of world socialist revolution. The outcome of this battle was intimately linked to the fate of the socialist revolution not just in Russia, but in Europe and China.

Against the background of these events, Ter-Vaganian published several important articles devoted to Marxist theory and party history. He was frequently engaged in polemics with various tendencies that had emerged in Russia: the proletarian culture movement, historians and writers grouped around journals such as "Bolshevik" and "Proletarian Revolution," and researchers who worked at the newly founded Marx-Engels Institute. Perhaps most ominously, he crossed swords with Emelian Yaroslavsky, who was emerging as one of the most energetic and shameless Stalinist falsifiers of history. By early 1928, following the defeat of the Left Opposition at the XVth Party Congress, Ter-Vaganian was facing expulsion from the party, arrest and exile. He was sent to Biisk, a city in Siberia, where he was allowed to give lectures on dialectical materialism.

After several months of exile in Biisk, Ter-Vaganian indicated that he was leaving the Left Opposition and was reinstated in the party in 1930. The next six years of his life were devoted to a defense of the principles of Bolshevism, under conditions in which these principles were being systematically attacked by the ruling party elite led by Stalin. As a relatively young “Old Bolshevik,” Ter-Vaganian shared the tragic fate of the generation which prepared and carried out the October Revolution. Continuously hounded, humiliated, and threatened with reprisal, these revolutionaries tried to find a modus vivendi in an increasingly hostile political environment. Some felt that with the upsurge of the revolution outside the borders of the Soviet Union, they would have the chance to break the stranglehold of the Stalinist regime.

In 1933, Ter-Vaganian was expelled from the party once again. Reinstated in 1934, he was expelled again in 1935 and exiled to Kazakstan. He was added very late to the list of defendants in the infamous “Trial of the Sixteen,” whose lead defendants were Zinoviev and Kamenev. In August 1936, upon conclusion of this first major frame-up trial in Moscow, Ter-Vaganian was shot. As with most victims of Stalin's Great Terror, his works were removed from Soviet libraries, and his name was erased from Soviet history.

The Goal and Structure of this Website

This website hopes to help clear away the remnants of Stalinist falsification with regard to Ter-Vaganian's life and writings, the development of Marxist philosophy in the 1920s and 1930s, and the political struggles of that time. It has long been a weakness in the West that Marxist theory is usually discussed with little direct knowledge of many of the contributors to this tradition, including Ter-Vaganian. This site intends to correct that weakness by making available for the English-speaking audience as many translated texts as possible, and for the Russian-speaking audience a significant selection original texts that are bibliographic rareties. With the translation of new material, the website intends to grow considerably over the next few years.

Aside from Ter-Vaganian's own writings, we hope to present as many documents, photographs, sketches, articles, etc. which deal with aspects of Ter-Vaganian's life and heritage. At every point we welcome corrections, contributions, and suggestions from our readers.

Lastly, although a number of people are participating in the creation of this website, for the time being please address all enquiries to me, since I am directly responsible for the content of the site.

Frederick Choate
Berkeley, 2004

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