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Biographical Material

Berkman's own (tongue-in-cheek) synopsis in a letter to his publisher

Prison Memorabilia

Alexander Berkman (1870-1936)

The youngest of four children, Alexander Berkman (ne Ovsei Osipovich Berkman) was born in Vilna, Russia (today, Vilnius, Lithuania) on November 21, 1870. He grew up in St. Petersberg, the son of an affluent Jewish businessman. Berkman's uncle had been exiled to Siberia for revolutionary activities, so rebellion was part of the family lore. Berkman's own rebeliousness exhibited itself early, when as a student he was in a group which read Nihilist works and other forbidden literature. Attracted to radical ideas early, he was expelled from school after submitting an atheistic essay to his instructors. Expelled and without options (both of his parents died when he was young), Berkman emigrated to the United States in 1887 and settled in New York City. He quickly involved himself in the city's radical political communities, joining the fight to free the men convicted of the Haymarket Bombing. He was a well-known anarchist leader in the United States and life-long friend of Emma Goldman, a young Russian immigrant whom he met on her first day in New York City. The two became lovers and moved in together, remaining close friends for the rest of Berkman's life. He got work as a type setter for Johann Most's anarchist newspaper, Freiheit, and later worked with Goldman on Mother Earth and his own journal, The Blast. In 1892, Berkman, at the age of 22, attempted to kill Henry Clay Frick by shooting him three times and stabbing him with a poisoned blade. Frick was second in command of Carnegie Steel, and his assualt on the striking steel workers of Homestead Pennslyvania had appalled Berkman's sense of justice so greatly that he needed to act. Berkman was tried and convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison, well above the usual penalty of the time. Berkman spent 14 years in prison in Pennslyvania, mostly in solitary confinement without visits or any contact with the world outside. In all, Berkman spent over twenty years in prison. When Berkman was released in 1906, he reunited with Goldman and they began to publish their own works, founding the journal Mother Earth and Berkman writing Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912), which he said helped him come to terms with his extended imprisonment. He founded the Ferrer Center in New York City, the center becoming a well known meeting place for anarchists. At the outbreak of WWI Berkman and Goldman became some of the most vocal members in a movement to keep the United States out of the war, switching their fcous to anti-conscription when the United States eventually entered the conflict. This did not last long, as it violated the newly created Espionage act, which prohibited publishing anti-war literature. Berkman was arrested, tried and sent to prison for two years for his efforts in opposition to the war. When released from prison in 1919, Berkman and Goldman were deported to the Soviet Union with countless other radical thinkers who had been living in the United States. After the failure of the Kronsdadt Rebellion in 1921, Berkman left Russia for German, convinced that freedom and equality had failed in the young Soviet nation. He spoke of his feelings of broken hope after leaving when he published The Bolshsevik Myth in 1925. He finally settled in France, where he wrote Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, which was published in 1929. Berkman spent the final years of his life in poverty, as his health declined, worn by a life of struggle. After he had two unsuccessful operations to help with his prostate condition, Berkman committed suicide in 1936. He died just weeks before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Among his numerous agitational writings the best-known of his books are Prison Memoirs, and The Bolshevik Myth. He committed suicide on June 28, 1936.

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