Times and timepieces of Wolf Pruss. 1. Coming of age in Russia

V. O. Pruss teaching watchmaking to orphanage boys.
Ogonyok, Feb. 19, 1928
Wolf (Vladimir Osipovich) Pruss was a very talented and unruly kid from a Hasidic Jewish shtetl, a dreamer who left comfortable family life in Geneva to pursue his vision to establish watchmaking industry in Russia – with homeless children educated to become the first watchmakers. The storyline traverses from Siberia to Switzerland, with a surprising set of American personalities in it, along with Lenin, Trotsky, and, ultimately, Stalin.
First Soviet watches from Pruss’ factory. Pravda, Dec. 20 1932
V. O. Pruss was executed in the 1937 terror, and erased from the official history. But his memory is coming back…

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)
Now in the company of revolution-minded college students, Wolf Pruss continued to radicalize. But Wolf was caught agitating the soldiers of the 31st artillery brigade in their Belgorod barracks and expelled from the town, so he decided to try his luck thousands miles away, at the newly constructed Trans-Siberian Railroad in Irkutsk. Possibly he expected a lot of watch-repairing business at this booming Siberian city, or perhaps he chose Irkutsk because the 31st Brigade was being sent to the Eastern Siberia as well, in the run up to the soon-to-flare Russo-Japanese War.

“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
Wolf got a job and a room at the compound of a gold mining executive there, likely Yakov Frizer, the discoverer of the fabled gold of Korolon. Irkutsk had a vibrant and tight-knit Jewish community at the time, many of them 2nd and 3rd generation Siberians, descendants of the exiles of the Polish Uprisings. The clans intermarried; the party loyalties were a crazy quilt. In August 1903, Yakov Frizer’s cousin, Moshe Novomeysky, the future founder of Israeli chemical industries, went to represent Irkutsk at the 6th Zionist Congress, debating whether Russia’s Jews should escape Czarist pogroms in… Uganda, while Mandelberg, his brother-in-law and a future Russian MP, represented Irkutsk at the founding congress of the Social-Democratic Party in London.

Frizer’s Irkutsk compound today

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.

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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.
Wolf Pruss remembered coming to the rapidly militarized city in 1903, agitating on the military train transports passing through Irkutsk before being caught again. But the Czarist secret service (Okhrana) archives tell a slightly different story. Apparently Pruss was snapped up by the Okhrana on Dec. 3, 1903 almost by chance, owing to his association with Isaak Gershevich Goldberg and his Irkutsk high school-based circle of Zionist-Socialists (who were into reading and arguing rather than into the revolutionary action stuff like guns and bombs). The Brotherhood, as the circle was known, consisted mostly of smart kids of well-off local Jewish merchants. They hatched a plan to publish an illegal newsletter, mimeographing or typing it 5 copies at a time, with the hope of turning it to a Pan-Siberian literary and scholarly magazine of liberal Jewish thought.
Irkutsk Gymnasia (high school). Most of the Brothers were VII grade students there.
But timing was rather inauspicious. Easter 1903 brought the bloody Kishinev Pogrom; the Czarist authorities were widely blamed for the massacre, and cracked down on the Jewish organizations in response. In May, the new Governor of Eastern Siberia banned local Zionist organizations (the largest of which, a 500-strong union, was run by Goldberg’s older brother Iona), and in July the police started an investigation of Zionist sympathizers. Alas, one of the Brotherhood members, G. Levenson, wrote too effusively about their grand plans in letters abroad, which were intercepted by the secret services. Arrests soon followed – and the authorities quickly realized that their net had caught a bigger fish than they planned, when a search of Wolf Pruss’s home turned up a huge stash of illegal revolutionary literature.

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
Свободное слово

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,
Free Speech!

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.
While the rest of the Brotherhood kids were quickly released, Wolf Pruss ended up stuck in the Irkutsk Prison Castle for nearly a year. His charges included membership in an illegal subversive organization (article 318 of the 1866 penal code, later dropped for insufficient evidence), making or distributing illegal anti-government literature (article 251), as well as creating anti-government texts for one’s own use (just recently criminalized under article 132 of the new 1903 Criminal Code). In fact the Gendarmerie’s own 1907 post-revolutionary review, armed with the benefit of hindsight, made a pretense that the Brotherhood arrests were an operation against the Social Democrats.

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
In Soviet historiography, much has been made of the splinters of the Russian Socialist movements and on being on Lenin’s side of the Social Democracy. Lenin’s faction has just adopted the famous nickname “Bolsheviks” when they formalized the split with the more mainstream faction of Lenin’s archrival Julius Martov in the summer of 1903. In Bolshevism’s official legend, its origins are linked with Lenin’s firebrand newspaper, Iskra (“The Spark”) – and reprints from the Iskra were among the items confiscated from Wolf. No wonder that later Soviet authors pounced on this tidbit and declared that “of course” the young Pruss must have been a Bolshevik! Nothing could be further from the truth; these articles reprinted from the Iskra were in fact penned by Martov, and called for moderation and a gradual systematic buildup of the revolutionary movement. Other publications of Martov’s were in Pruss’s stash as well. And indeed, the Siberian Social-Democratic Union, then centered in Irkutsk, has been a firmly anti-Bolshevik organization siding with Martov’s “Mensheviks”. So we can clearly identify the party affiliation of Wolf Pruss as a mainstream Social-Democrat.

Isaak G. Goldberg, 1884-1939

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 wasn’t offered bail until July 20, 1904, and at 1,000 rubles (some $14,000 in today’s money) he couldn’t make it. Summer was turning to fall when he finally got a glimmer of hope. The birth of the heir to the Russian Imperial throne was celebrated with a general amnesty for all political offenses and the remaining charges were to be dropped. The gears of the bureaucratic machinery were grinding slowly, and it took time to act on the throne’s manifesto, but Wolf was eventually released, and finally, in mid-December, allowed to leave town. He told the authorities that he was returning home to Vitebsk Gubernia, yet his comrades knew that he wasn’t going to stay there for long, that he had decided to leave Russia. But by then, the situation in the country was quickly spinning out of control. The war with Japan was lost; Russia’s principal base in the Far East, Port Arthur, fell in late December; and the workers’ mutual aid societies, at first supported by the government as a bulwark against the socialist influences, were becoming bolder and more radical by the week.

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
It appears that Wolf arranged to be smuggled across the German border using the Social-Democrat connections, but, due to the chaos, ended up stuck 50 miles away from the border in Belostok, a large Jewish county seat town in Grodno Gubernia (now Białystok in Poland). Wolf wrote that he couldn’t stay in town legally because Belostok and the whole North-Western Krai (region) have become engulfed in a general strike; so he used another young man’s ID and stayed in a clandestine safe house. The flames of the revolution in the northwest were being fanned by the Jewish Labor Bund, a powerful Social-Democratic faction which was also originally a project of Julius Martov, and had also split from the Bolsheviks in 1903.

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

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