|V. O. Pruss teaching watchmaking to orphanage boys.|
Ogonyok, Feb. 19, 1928
|First Soviet watches from Pruss’ factory. Pravda, Dec. 20 1932|
I’m going to split this story, which I have been researching for years with the help of relatives and friends, into 3 chapters: Russia, emigration, and return to Russia. Much has been invented about the supposedly decades-long personal connections of Pruss and Lenin, and much needs to be debunked, but you’ll need to wait for the next chapter for this. In the 2nd chapter I search for evidence, and find a proof of their acquaintance only for a time period of less than 2 years, when Lenin was stuck in Bern, struggling financially, in a messed up menage-a-trois kind of a relationship with Nadya & Inessa, and needed every sandwich and every cup of tea his better-off comrades could give him.
The story begins in the three sleepy county seat towns of Vitebsk Gubernia, now straddling Russia-Belarus border, at the northernmost fringes of the Pale of Settlement, the area in Western Russia to which the Jews were restricted after the Czarist government's efforts to convert or expel them fell through. 12% of Vitebsk Gubernia population were Jewish at the time. A year before Wolf’s birth, pathologically anti-Semitic Alexander III ascended to Russian throne, and made most places even within the Pale off-limits for the Jews to live, sending most of traditional Jewish towns on a death spiral of overcrowding and poverty.
Map of the Jewish Pale, adopted from Wikipedia, with the Nevel, Gorodok, and Velizh marked by red dots.
Wolf Pruss was born on February 18, 1883 in Gorodok (which just means “Little town” / “Shtetl”). There, he began learning watchmaking from his maternal uncle. As Wolf told it, at the age of 12 he was caught fixing a neighbor’s clock using tools “borrowed” from the uncle. As a punishment, he was sent away from town to apprentice with a rich family, but it didn’t work out. The family lore adds more about the reasons for Wolf’s banishment. Joseph, his strict father, couldn’t stand the kid’s disobedience, but his mother Evgeniya kept finding good people to take care of her young “Wolya” (or Velvl as other relatives preferred to call him in Yiddish). His mother hailed from a more educated family in a larger city of Vitebsk, and didn’t fit in well with the ultra-religious Hasids of Gorodok. Like his mother, Wolf didn’t particularly respect traditional customs. He had to attend kheder (a traditional religious school), but managed to offend an influential rabbi at the school so greatly as to be damned (along with his descendants, Wolf’s oldest daughter, my grand-aunt Rachel hastened to add).
After this, the young man couldn’t find shelter anywhere close to home, and was sent to a railroad junction town of Nevel, a county seat (uezd) town 40 miles away, to apprentice at a workshop of Master Zukerman. At first Wolya worked without pay, just for room and board, but he soon proved to be a skilled student, and Mr. Zukerman signed him on on a 2-year contract. But it wasn’t to be. The young apprentice started reading pro-democracy pamphlets and grew increasingly insubordinate, and the boss kicked him out.
The next stop was at tiny Velizh on the banks of Dvina river, a county seat populated by some 2,000 Jews & best known in history as the location of the first blood libel case ever to be overturned by the Russian Imperial court system (the court even reprimanded a local drunkard prostitute for filing a false police report – back in the 1830s!) Wolf Pruss was to apprentice with the stark and controlling Master Prupas on a punishing 2 and a half year contract, which involved not only 12-14 hour shifts in the workshop, but also numerous household duties, including feeding the cows, cleaning the yard, carrying water from the river, and so on. After a year of such work, and much beating and cussing, Wolf attempted to run away but was caught and returned. But then, in 1900, a disaster changed everything. Mr. Prupas’ 10-year old son misbehaved at the time of a Shabbath prayer, and his father violently threw him across the room. The boy’s body slammed against the wood stove, and he died within a few days.
This horrible experience changed the old watchmaker from a rage-prone brute into a timid, thoughtful teacher, who now cared earnestly about the studies of his apprentice, and never even raised his voice when Wolf would stay up after a day of work, reading illegal anti-monarchy literature. Once the contract was over, Mr. Prupas begged the teenager to stay with him. But once he understood that Wolf Pruss was determined to strike on his own, the teacher gave him not just clothes and money but also the Watchmaker Guild membership. It was Wolf’s ticket out to the wider world, because skilled craftsmen with guild credentials were allowed to move anywhere in the Empire, even if they were Jews. (He was really lucky because the government disbanded the guild system in Vitebsk less than a year later, closing the loophole). Now the young watchmaker journeyman could find jobs anywhere, even beyond the Pale of Jewish Settlement.
And off to the Russian hinterland he went, joining the thriving business of Mr. Kryuchkovich in Belgorod, repairing watches primarily for sugar factories across the surrounding Kursk and Kharkov gubernias.
Machurin Barracks, the home of the 31st Artillery Brigade in Belgorod, still houses a military unit in 2013 (photo from ts58 photoblog)
First battery of the 31st Artillery Brigade went East in July 1903. Czar Nicholas II came to Belgorod to send two more batteries off to the Japanese theater of war in this May 1904 photo
|Irkutsk Railroad Station (this and following railroad pictures are from R. Berestyonev’s paper)|
“Korolonets”, Yakov Frizer’s 30HP steamboat on Vitim River. The gold mines’ seasonal supply routes included 1500 miles by riverboat in summer, or 600 miles overland by camel-drawn sleigh in winter
|Frizer’s sluices in the forbidding Korolon Gorge|
The Trans-Siberian Railroad reached Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in 1898, but the railroad around the giant lake’s cliffy shoreline wasn’t completed until 1904 (and remained vulnerable to landslides even then), so for several years the trains had to cross the inland sea by ferry in summer, or to be pulled on sleighs for crossing in winter.
|Irkutsk with a pontoon summer bridge over mighty Angara. With the arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the city’s population mushroomed to 75,000.|
|Irkutsk Gymnasia (high school). Most of the Brothers were VII grade students there.|
|The mimeographed issue #4 of Brotherhood, dated January 20, 1903 opens with an ode to the freedom of speech:|
Ты чудо из божьих чудес
Ты мысли светильник и пламя
Ты луч нам на землю с небес
Ты нам человечества знамя;
Ты гонишь невежество, ложь
Ты вечною жизнию ново
Ты к правде, ты к счастью ведёшь
You are one of God’s miracles,
You are the flaming beacon of thought
You are a shining ray of light from the skies
You are the banner of the humankind
You banish ignorance and lies
You are forever renewed and immortal
You show the path to truth and happiness,
|Irkutsk Prison Castle, as seen in 1885. In 1904 the same two-story building, by then nearly 50 years old, housed the inmates. It is still in use for pretrial detention, although one of the cells, where the Supreme Ruler Admiral Kolchak was kept before his 1920 execution, has become a museum.|
|Martov (seated on the right) and Lenin (seated in the center), still close allies in Russia’s original Social-Democratic league, in this 1897 photo from Wikipedia|
Isaak Gershevich (Grigorievich) Goldberg is the most famous of Wolf’s friends from this Russian chapter of his life. Isaak was born in Irkutsk to an exiled Jewish blacksmith father, whose children stayed behind when their father returned home, and started successful businesses in mechanics and hardware. Isaak, the youngest, was already a fledgling author whose first novel appeared in 1903. Like most of the rest of the circle’s participants – Levenson, Feinberg brothers, Levenberg, Eliashevich, Preisman, Winer, Azadowsky, Winik – Goldberg was only further radicalized after the Brotherhood arrests and joined armed cells of the “Esers” (S.-R’s, Socialists-Revolutioners). He ended up exiled to even more remote regions of Siberia for his activities in the 1905 Revolution and returned to Irkutsk only in 1912, soon publishing a book of short stories from his exile. After the fall of the monarchy he served on the city council on the PSR ticket. Over time he became an influential author and literary society organizer; arrested in 1937, executed. Recently there has been a great investigation of his life by a local journalist and blogger, Maksim Kudelya.
Wolf Pruss in 1904, before leaving Irkutsk. The picture is inscribed “To dear Israel from W.” on the back
In early January, over 100,000 workers in St. Petersburg went on strike, and 150,000 turned out for a rally on Sunday, January 9th, 1905 to petition the Czar for freedoms, an 8-hour work day, and Constitutional Assembly. The petitioners were met with gunfire, hundreds were killed, and in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday the whole nation exploded with the First Russian Revolution.
|The Bund’s heyday was during the 1905-1907 Revolution, and then its significance faded, but Belostok remained a Jewish Bund stronghold all the way until the Holocaust. Here is a May Day 1934 Bund rally in Belostok|
Interestingly, this backwater Jewish town has already been featured in my other blog as the capital of Russian and Polish tango and waltz under Soviet occupation in the opening years of WWII
After only a week in Belostok, Wolf Pruss was arrested again in a safe-house sweep which also turned up a weapons cache. After several nights in crowded local jails, he was transported to Wilno, the capital of the North-Western Krai (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania). The authorities still didn’t know his real identity. While Wolf Pruss was languishing in Wilno prison incognito, the Belostok uprising grew in strength. Nikolay Yelchin, the 53 year old police chief, was killed Feb 21 1905, near Belostok, by a member of the united committee of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Polish Socialists. The armed Anarchists grew in strength and secured whole neighborhoods of Belostok. Although it is most likely that Wolf was connected with the Bund, one can’t exclude a possibility of a PSR or the Anarchist link. The comrades finally secured Wolf’s release on Feb. 25, 1905, and he was eager to scrap his emigration plans. The excitement of the revolutionary struggle at home was impossible to resist, he wrote.
But in April 1905 the Irkutsk connections backfired again, when a police operation breaking down socialist cells led to the arrest of his older Irkutsk comrade, Vladimir Fedorovich Hardin. They found with him a letter from “W. P.” mailed from Wilno on Feb. 26, 1905. On April 29 1905, Okhrana concluded that “W. P.” was Wolf Pruss who left Irkutsk supposedly for his hometown on Dec. 15 1904. (V. F. Hardin, an ethnic Russian from Sorochinsk, a Cossack outpost in the foothills of South Ural mountains, was 6 years older than Wolf, and stayed on in Irkutsk. Later on, he owned a publishing house there producing local guidebooks and directories before the 1917 Revolution. He was executed in Irkutsk during the height of Stalin’s terror in 1938). His cover finally blown, Wolf Pruss now had to flee Russia and seek refuge in Switzerland – a country which would nurture both his passion for social justice and for watch-making.
Scenes of Wolf Pruss’ early years in Russia