Alexander Parvus

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Alexander Parvus
Parvus Alexander.jpg
Alexander Parvus in 1905
Israel Lazarevich Gelfand

(1867-09-08)8 September 1867
Died12 December 1924(1924-12-12) (aged 57)

Alexander Lvovich Parvus, born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand (8 September 1867 – 12 December 1924) and sometimes called Helphand in the literature on the Russian Revolution, was a Marxist theoretician, publicist and controversial activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.


Early life[edit]

Israel Lazarevich Gelfand was born to a Lithuanian Jewish family on 8 September 1867 in the shtetl of Berazino in the Russian Empire, (in present-day Belarus). Although little is known of Israel's early childhood, the Gelfand family belonged to the lower-middle class, with his father working as an artisan of some sort — perhaps as a locksmith or as a blacksmith.[1] When Israel was a small boy, a fire damaged the family's home in Berazino, prompting a move to the city of Odessa, Russian Empire, (present-day Ukraine), the hometown of Israel's paternal grandfather.[2]

Gelfand attended gymnasium in Odessa and received private tutoring in the humanities.[3] He also read widely on his own, including material by the iconic Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, the journalist Nikolai Mikhailovsky, and the political satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, which led the young Gelfand to begin to question the legitimacy of the Tsarist Empire.[4]


In 1886, the 19-year-old Gelfand first traveled from Russia to Basel, Switzerland.[5] It was there that Gelfand was first exposed to the writings of Alexander Herzen as well as the revolutionary literature of the day.[6] He returned to Russia briefly the following year but he became the subject of official scrutiny by the tsarist secret police and was forced to leave the country again for his safety.[7] He would remain abroad for more than a decade.[7]

Returning to Switzerland, in the autumn of 1888 Gelfand enrolled at the University of Basel, where he studied political economy.[8] Gelfand would remain at the university for the next three years, graduating with a doctorate degree in July 1891.[9] Gelfand's professors were largely hostile to his Marxist approach to economics, however, and difficulty in his oral examination resulted in a rider being attached to the degree which rendered it the equivalent of a third class degree.[9]

Gelfand chose not to pursue an academic career but rather sought to begin a political career which would both provide him financial support and serve the cause of socialism.[10] Alienated from the backwardness of agrarian Russia and the limited political horizons there, Gelfand moved to Germany, joined the Social Democratic Party and befriended German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

In 1900, he met Vladimir Lenin for the first time, in Munich, each admiring the other's theoretical works. Parvus encouraged Lenin to begin publishing his revolutionary paper Iskra.[11]

Parvus' attempts to become a German citizen proved fruitless. He once commented in a letter to his German friend Wilhelm Liebknecht that "I am seeking a government where one can inexpensively acquire a fatherland."[12]

During this time he developed the concept of using a foreign war to provoke an internal revolt within a country. It was at this time that Parvus revived, from Karl Marx, the concept-strategy of "permanent revolution". He communicated this philosophy to Trotsky who then further expanded and developed it. There were broad discussions on the questions of "permanent revolution" within the social democratic movement in the period leading up to 1917.[13]

Russian Revolution of 1905[edit]

In connection with this provocation and Parvus' involvement in the organization of anti-government actions during the 1905 revolution, Parvus (together with other revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky) was arrested by the Russian police. While in prison he became close with other revolutionaries, and was visited by Rosa Luxemburg.[14]

Sentenced to three years exile in Siberia, Parvus escaped and emigrated to Germany, where he published a book about his experiences called In the Russian Bastille during the Revolution.

A. Parvus (left) with Leon Trotsky (center) and Leo Deutsch (right) in prison

Maxim Gorky affair[edit]

While in Germany, Parvus struck a deal with Russian author Maxim Gorky to produce his play The Lower Depths. According to the agreement, the majority of the play's proceeds were to go to the Russian Social Democratic Party (and approximately 25% to Gorky himself). Parvus' failure to pay (despite the fact that the play had over 500 showings) caused him to be accused of stealing 130,000 German gold marks. Gorky threatened to sue, but Rosa Luxemburg convinced Gorky to keep the quarrel inside the party's own court. Eventually, Parvus paid back Gorky, but his reputation in party circles was damaged.

Istanbul period[edit]

Soon afterwards Parvus moved to Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire, where he lived for five years.[15] There he set up an arms trading company which profited handsomely during the Balkan War. He became the financial and political advisor of the Young Turks. In 1912 he was made editor of Turk Yurdu, their daily newspaper. He worked closely with the triumvirs known as the Three Pashas—Enver, Talat and Cemal—and Finance Minister Djavid Bey. His firm dealt with the deliveries of foodstuffs for the Ottoman army and he was a business partner of the Krupp concern, of Vickers Limited, and of the famous arms dealer Basil Zaharov.[16] Arms dealings with Vickers Limited at war time gave basis to the theory that Alexander Parvus was also a British intelligence asset.

Russian Revolution[edit]

While in Turkey, Parvus became close with German ambassador Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim who was known to be partial to establishing revolutionary fifth columns among the allies. Consequently, Parvus offered his plan via Baron von Wangenheim to the German General Staff: the paralyzing of Russia via general strike, financed by the German government[17] (which, at the time, was at war with Russia and its allies). Von Wangenheim sent Parvus to Berlin where the latter arrived on the 6 March 1915 and presented a 20-page plan titled A preparation of massive political strikes in Russia to the German government.[18]

Copenhagen operation[edit]

Some[who?] accuse Parvus of having funded Lenin while in Switzerland. Authors such as the following, however, are skeptical. Scharlau and Zeman conclude in their biography of Parvus that there was no cooperation between the two, declaring that "Lenin refused the German offer of aid." Parvus's bank account shows that he only paid out a total of 25,600 francs in the period between his arrival in Switzerland in May 1915 and the February Revolution of 1917. Parvus did little in Switzerland, Alfred Erich Senn concludes.[19] Austrian intelligence thought Parvus gave money to Russian emigres' newspapers in Paris. However, in the beginning of 1915 the sources of funding became clearer to Lenin and the other Paris emigrés, whereupon they rejected further support. Harold Shukman concluded, "funds were plainly not flowing into Lenin's hands" [20]

Parvus placed his bets on Lenin, as the latter was not only a radical but willing to accept the sponsorship of the Tsar's wartime enemy, Germany. The two met in Bern in May 1915 and agreed to collaboration through their organizations, though Lenin remained very careful never to get associated with Parvus in public. There is no certain proof that they ever met face to face again, although there are indications that such a meeting may well have occurred on 13 April 1917, during Lenin's stop-over in Stockholm.[21]

Parvus assiduously worked at keeping Lenin's confidence, however Lenin kept him at arm's length to disguise the changing roles of both men, Parvus involvement with German intelligence and his own liaisons with his old ally, who was not respected anymore among the socialists after his years in Turkey and after becoming a millionaire entrepreneur.[22] German intelligence set up Parvus' financial network via offshore operations in Copenhagen, setting up relays for German money to get to Russia via fake financial transactions between front organizations. A large part of the transactions of these companies were genuine, but those served to bury the transfer of money to the Bolsheviks, a strategy made feasible by the weak and overburdened fiscal and customs offices in Scandinavia, which were inadequate for the booming black market in these countries during the war.

It is still debated whether the money with which this financial network operated was actually of German origin. The evidence published by Alexander Kerensky's Government in preparation for a trial scheduled for October (November) 1917 was recently reexamined and found to be either inconclusive or outright forgery.[23] (See also Sisson Documents)

Leon Trotsky responded to allegations that Lenin had colluded with German intelligence in his return to St Petersburg[24] in Volume 2 Chapter 4 of his History of the Russian Revolution.[25]


Parvus died in Berlin on 12 December 1924. His body was cremated and interred in a Berlin cemetery. After his death, Konrad Haenisch wrote in his memoir: "This man possessed the ablest brains of the Second International".[26]

During his lifetime, Alexander Parvus' reputation among his revolutionary peers suffered as a result of the Maxim Gorky affair (see above) and the fact that he was in effect a German government agent. At the same time both his business skills and revolutionary ideas were appreciated and relied upon by Russian and German revolutionaries and Ottoman's Young Turks. After the October Revolution in Russia for obvious political reasons his role was denied and he himself vilified. This continued during Joseph Stalin's era and sometimes had anti-semitic overtones to it. In Germany however he was considered favorably.[clarification needed][17] His name is often used in modern political debates in Russia.[16]

Parvus left no documents after his death and all of his savings disappeared. Both of his surviving sons became Soviet diplomats.[27]


He was portrayed by British actor Michael Gough in the 1974 BBC mini-series Fall of Eagles, covering the history of the pre-World War I period. In 1988 he was portrayed by British actor Timothy West in the film “Lenin...The Train”. He was also portrayed by the Armenian Actor Kevork Malikyan in the 2017 Turkish TV series Payitaht: Abdülhamid covering the struggles and intelligence of The Ottoman Sultan of that period to keep the empire together.


  1. ^ Z.A.B. Zeman and W.B. Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution: The Life of Alexander Israel Helphand (Parvus), 1867-1924. London: Oxford University Press, 1965; pg. 8.
  2. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 9.
  3. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 10.
  4. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pp. 10-11.
  5. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pp. 11 and 16.
  6. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 12.
  7. ^ a b Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 14.
  8. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 16.
  9. ^ a b Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 18.
  10. ^ Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 19.
  11. ^ "Александр Парвус (Израиль Гельфанд)," Khronos, Accessed September 27, 2009.
  12. ^ L. Shub, "Kupets revoliutsii" (Merchant of the Revolution), Novyi zhurnal [New York], vol. 87 (1967), page 296. Cited in "Александр Парвус (Израиль Гельфанд)," Khronos, Accessed September 27, 2009.
  13. ^ Day, Richard B.; Gaido, Daniel (2011). Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record. Haymarket Books. ISBN 978-1608460892.
  14. ^ Pietro Zveteremich, Il grande Parvus, Milan, Garzanti, 1988, p. 117
  15. ^ Karaömerlioglu, Asim (November 2004). ""Helphand-Parvus and his impact on Turkish intellectual life"". Vol. 40, No. 6, pages 145-165. Middle Eastern Studies. Archived from the original on 2013-01-28. Retrieved 2006-12-17.
  16. ^ a b Галковский, Дмитрий (June 22, 2005). "Березовский – между Азефом и Парвусом (Berezovsky – between Azef and Parvus)" (in Russian). Деловая газета «Взгляд». Archived from the original on 31 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-17.
  17. ^ a b Schurer, Heinz (October 1959). "Alexander Helphand-Parvus—Russian Revolutionary and German Patriot". Russian Review. 18 (4): 313–331. doi:10.2307/126174. JSTOR 126174.
  18. ^ Парвус, Александр (February 1915). "Подготовка массовой политической забастовки в России (A preparation of massive political strikes in Russia)" (in Russian). ХРОНОС. Retrieved 2006-12-17.
  19. ^ Senn, Alfred Erich (1976). "The Myth of German Money during the First World War". Soviet Studies. 28 (1): 83–90. doi:10.1080/09668137608411043. JSTOR 150283.
  20. ^ Harold Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Putnam Pub Group, 1967
  21. ^ Hans Björkegren, Ryska posten: de ryska revolutionärerna i Norden 1906-1917 (in Swedish), 1985, Bonnier Fakta, Stockholm; we know that Parvus sent a number of messages to Lenin that day and tried to coax a meeting, and some sources suggest that such an encounter did in fact happen before Lenin went north and home
  22. ^ Michael Pearson, The Sealed Train, London, 1975, ch.4
  23. ^ Semion Lyandres Archived 2006-10-30 at the Wayback Machine The Bolsheviks' "German Gold" Revisited: An Inquiry into the 1917 Accusations
  24. ^ (in German)Pößneck, Ehrenfried Lenin als Kontrahent von Parvus im Jahr 1917. Schkeuditz : GNN-Verlag, 1997. ISBN 3-932725-05-0; D. Stove, The question about Parvus (1991).
  25. ^ Peter Schwarz: Der Spiegel churns out old lies on the October Revolution Retrieved 2015-08-07.
  26. ^ (in German)Haenisch, Konrad Parvus : ein Blatt der Erinnerung. Berlin Verl. für Sozialwissenschaft, 1925
  27. ^ Stephen F. Cohen in the introduction to Anna Larina's book "This I Cannot Forget" mentions the son of Parvus, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gnedin. Gnedin was a Soviet journalist and a diplomat, who in his memoirs "Catastrophe and Rebirth" and in "Exit from the Labyrinth" described many years of Stalinist camps and exile.

Further reading[edit]

  • Karaömerlıoğlu, M. Asim (November 2004). "Helphand-Parvus and His Impact on Turkish Intellectual Life". Middle Eastern Studies. 40 (6): 145–165. doi:10.1080/0026320042000282928. JSTOR 4289957.
  • Pearson, Michael (1975). The Sealed Train: Journey to Revolution, Lenin – 1917. London: Macmillan.

External links[edit]