Mollie (or Molly) Steimer (Russian: Молли Штеймер; November 21, 1897 – July 23, 1980) was born as Marthe Alperine in Tsarist Russia. She immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of 15. She became an anarchist and activist who fought as a trade unionist, an anti-war activist and a free-speech campaigner.
Arrested in 1918 for printing and distributing leaflets denouncing the U.S. military action in Russia opposing the Bolshevik revolution, she was convicted under the Sedition Act and sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was deported to her native Russia in 1921, where she met anarchist Senya Fleshin who would become her lifelong partner. After protesting Bolshevik persecutions of anarchists in Russia, the two were deported to Germany in 1923. When Hitler came to power in Germany they fled to France and eventually made their way to Mexico where they spent the rest of their lives together.
Standing just 4'9" (1.42 m), Steimer went to work in the garment factories of New York's Lower East Side. She soon became involved in trade union activities, and became interested in anarchism. She was influenced by works such as August Bebel's Women and Socialism, Mikhail Bakunin's Statehood and Anarchy, Peter Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist and Emma Goldman's Anarchism and Other Essays. She later became a friend of Emma Goldman's. Goldman described Steimer as a hardened anarchist militant, completely devoted to armed struggle, with "an iron will" and a "tender heart".
In 1917, aged 19, Steimer helped form a clandestine collective called Der Shturm ("The Storm") with other Jewish anarchists. Several of the members, including Steimer, shared a six-room apartment at 5 East 104th Street in Harlem where they held meetings. After reconciling their internal conflicts they renamed themselves Frayhayt ("Freedom"). With the aid of a hand-operated printing press, they published a journal of the same name out of the 104th St. apartment.
Frayhayt was distributed in secret, because it had been outlawed by the federal government for its opposition to the American war effort. The masthead read "The only just war is social revolution." The motto was a Henry David Thoreau quote: "That government is best which governs not at all" (in Yiddish: "Yene regirung iz di beste, velke regirt in gantsn nit"). Copies of the paper were tightly folded and stuffed into mailboxes around the city after dark. Between January 1918 and May 1918 the group published five issues with cartoons by Robert Minor and articles by Maria Goldsmith and Georg Brandes among others.
Federal authorities were aware of the group and their publication but were unable to discover who the members were and track them down.
By the spring of 1918 large numbers of American troops were arriving in France to fight with the Allies against Germany, Turkey, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Steimer and other members of Frayhayt saw the war as an imperialist and counter-revolutionary distraction from the worker's struggle, and resolved to stop it. They drafted two leaflets on the subject, one in English and one in Yiddish, calling on American workers to refuse the U.S. draft for military service and to take part in a general strike.
On August 23, 1918, after flyers condemning American military intervention in Russia were thrown to the street from buildings in lower Manhattan, Steimer was arrested. Police had previously picked up another Frayhayt member, Hyman Rosansky, who admitted his involvement in distributing the flyers and in his confession, implicated the others. Steimer was arrested for conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a criminal offense to disseminate information with intent to interfere with the operation of the U.S. armed forces, to promote the success of its enemies, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, mutiny, or refusal of duty, or to willfully obstruct recruiting and enlistment in the armed forces of the United States. Angered by radical left opposition to his decision to enter the war, President Woodrow Wilson had strongly supported enactment of the Espionage Act.
Steimer had helped write and print the handbills which condemned the war and President Wilson. The group was especially angered by Wilson's recent decision to divert U.S. Army troops to Archangelsk, Russia as part of the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, supporting the anti-communist White Army forces against the Bolshevik Red Army. The leaflets read AWAKE! AWAKE, YOU WORKERS OF THE WORLD! REVOLUTIONISTS. One of her co-defendants, Jacob Schwartz, was brutally beaten by police and died of his injuries on October 14, 1918. The remaining defendants were charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act.
In October 1918, Steimer and three others, Jacob Abrams, Hyman Lachowsky, and Samuel Lipman, were convicted of violating the U.S. Espionage Act. In a passionate statement at her trial, Steimer stated she was willing to die for freedom and anarchism. At sentencing, the court gave the three men - Lipman, Lachowsky, and Abrams - the maximum penalty of twenty years in prison and a $1,000 fine; Steimer received fifteen years in the Federal Penitentiary in Jefferson City Missouri, and a $500 fine. Rosansky, in a separate proceeding, was given a three-year term.
Steimer was allowed out on bail while her appeal went to the U.S. Supreme Court in Abrams v. United States. During this time she was re-arrested at least seven times, but was always released without charge.
On October 30, 1919, she was again arrested and taken to Blackwell Island. While there the Supreme Court upheld her conviction under the Espionage Act, and she was transferred to the Jefferson City Prison in Missouri.
After their unsuccessful appeals, in 1921 a U.S. immigration court ruled that Steimer and her co-defendants be deported. Initially she refused to leave her cell and said that she would not leave until all political prisoners were free. Eventually she relented, but again refused to be transported to Ellis Island until a railroad strike was resolved, since she would not use a train run by strike breakers. Ten days later the strike was called off and Steimer was transported to Ellis Island. She was deported to her native Russia on November 1, 1921 on the S.S. Estonia, arriving in Moscow a month and a half later, on December 15.
Life in Soviet Russia
Upon arrival, Steimer soon saw the Bolshevik communist revolution as one that had taken a "wrong turn". Faced with obvious repression by Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik government, which had already begun arresting, and in some cases executing members of anarchist organizations, Steimer sought to support her anarchist comrades. While in Russia she met fellow anarchist Senya Fleshin, who had recently been released from prison for criticizing the new Bolshevik government. Fleshin and Steimer became lovers, and together formed the Society to Help Anarchist Prisoners to aid anarchist prisoners in Bolshevik jails. Both were soon re-arrested and charged with "aiding criminal elements" (i.e. supporting other imprisoned anarchists) in Soviet Russia. Both went on a hunger strike, and after pressure by Emma Goldman and others, Soviet authorities ordered their deportation to Germany, where they joined Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in Berlin. When Hitler came to power, Steimer and Fleshin were forced to flee to Paris, France.
Exile in Germany and France
Disappointed by the revolution in Russia, the couple continued writing and agitating for anarchist causes, first in Germany, and later in France. From Berlin Steimer sent two articles to the London anarchist journal Freedom, On Leaving Russia (January 1924) and The Communists As Jailers (May 1924), in which she described her recent experiences. When deported from America two years before, her "heart was light," she said, but she was "deeply grieved" to be deported from Russia, even though the "hypocrisy, intolerance, and treachery" of the Bolsheviks "aroused in me a feeling of indignation and revolt." In her homeland, she declared, a great popular revolution had been usurped by a ruthless Communist government, using the secret police (Cheka) to wipe out political opposition. In a 1923 letter to a friend, she declared: "No, I am NOT happy to be out of Russia. I would rather be there helping the workers combat the tyrannical deeds of the hypocritical Communists."
After Germany came under the control of the National Socialist Party led by Adolf Hitler, Steimer and Fleshin fled to France, where they were placed under surveillance by the French police. On May 18, 1940, French officials arrested Steimer and imprisoned her at an internment camp, Camp Gurs. She remained there incommunicado for seven weeks, before escaping with the aid of May Picqueray and other friends during the chaotic transfer of power to the Vichy government. She then traveled to German-occupied (non-Vichy) France, where she reunited with Fleshin. Picqueray and other friends helped smuggle the couple out of France; they eventually traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Steimer's old comrades from her 1918 espionage trial had various fates. Samuel Lipman stayed in Soviet Russia and was executed on the orders of Joseph Stalin, while Hyman Lachowsky died in a Nazi concentration camp. Jacob Abrams eventually left Europe altogether, settling in Mexico.
Steimer settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with Fleshin, her lifelong companion, where they ran a photographic studio. Together they retired in 1963. She continued to advocate anarchist ideals and correspond with various comrades around the world.
In 1976, she was filmed by a Dutch television crew working on a documentary about Emma Goldman. She was also filmed and interviewed by Pacific Street Films for their project, Anarchism in America. Steimer spoke briefly about Goldman, and at length about her own life and struggles.
Steimer died of heart failure in her Cuernavaca home on July 23, 1980, aged 82.
- Anarchist Red Cross
- Cheka (Bolshevik Communist secret police)
- OGPU Soviet state security police (successor to the Cheka)
- Polar Bear Expedition
- Senya Fleshin
- Polenberg, Fighting Faiths: the Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech (1987), pp. 43-47, 66
- Woodcock, George, Anarchism: A History Of Libertarian Ideas And Movements, Broadview Press (2004), ISBN 1-55111-629-4, ISBN 978-1-55111-629-7, p. 350
- Goldman, Emma, Trotsky Protests Too Much: An Essay, The Anarchist Communist Federation, Glasgow, Scotland (1938) Essay: As early as 1918, Leon Trotsky had vowed to cleanse Soviet Russia of anarchists "with an iron broom", ordering Cheka raids on 26 anarchist centers in Moscow, resulting in the liquidation via machine-gun of 40 anarchists, and the jailing of 500 more. By the time of Steimer's arrival, the arrest and imprisonment of all 'anarchist bandits' and other 'dissident elements' was nearly complete.
- Magnone, Fabrice, Le Libertaire (1919-1956): De la Révolution espagnole à la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Ch. III, Sec. C: La Seconde Guerre Mondial, parcours politique du journal Article: Steimer was aided principally by May Picqueray (1893-1983), the militant anarchist editor of Le Refractaire, who had previously assisted the couple by protesting their imprisonment in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1923.
- Magnone, Fabrice, Le Libertaire (1919-1956): De la Révolution espagnole à la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Ch. III, Cec. C: La Seconde Guerre Mondial, parcours politique du journal: "May Picqueray se montre particulièrement efficace dans cette situation. Elle [Picqueray] obtient la libération de Nicolas Lazarevitch et permet à Mollie Steimer et Senya Flechine de quitter le camp de Gurs pour se réfugier au Mexique."
- Polenberg, Richard, Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech, Cornell University Press (1999), ISBN 0-8014-8618-1, ISBN 978-0-8014-8618-0, pp. 361-361
References and footnotes
- Steimer interview at Anarchism in America (1983 film)
- Mollie Steimer: An Anarchist Life, by Paul Avrich
- Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2003) by Geoffrey R. Stone
- Spartacus Educational website
- Women's History Collections at the International Institute of Social History: International Guide
- Abrams case cited in West's Encyclopedia of American Law
- "On leaving Russia" by Mollie Steimer