One of the things I love about investigating obscure references in my reading is that it sometimes leads me into nearly forgotten byways of history that I can then bring to light. In reading Chukovsky I got to the Nov. 17, 1919 entry, which includes the mysterious sentence “Merezhkovsky and I went to the Kolos, where Blok was giving his talk on musicality and civilization.” That makes it sounds like they were visiting a couple named Kolo, but the Russian reads “мы ходили в «Колос»,” which makes it clear that Kolos is the name of some institution or organization (and renders the translation incomprehensible; it should be “Merezhkovsky and I went to Kolos,” without an article). Since колос (kolos) is a common Russian word (meaning ‘ear [of a cereal plant]’), it took me some creative googling to discover that here it referred to a publishing house that was in existence between 1918 and the mid-1920s. I wanted to know where it was located (which I never did find out), so I kept searching, and learned that it was run by one P. Vityazev (П. Витязев), the pseudonym of Ferapont Ivanovich Sedenko (Ферапонт Иванович Седенко), and it was his story that inspired me to write this post.
Sedenko, described in a Minuvshee footnote as “historian, bibliographer, publisher, and publitsist [political journalist],” was born on May 27 (June 8, New Style), 1886, in the Bessarabian town of Akkerman (now Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi in Ukraine), the son of a sailor (a вольний штурман or ‘free navigator,’ according to his documents). He spent his first twenty years in Akkerman, in 1905 organizing a student strike; he then went to Novorossiya University in Odessa, but (according to this site) “neglected his studies in order to take part in political struggle as a member of the SR organization and its combat detachments, being active in Akkerman and Odessa during the revolts of 1905-07.” In January 1907 he was arrested; in a 1915 letter he described the succeeding period as “two years in Vologda gubernia, three years in Siberia, two years in prison, and a final two years of wandering and university.” In 1910 Sedenko entered the law school of Saint Petersburg University, where he was a classmate and friend of Pitirim Sorokin, but his participation in the student unrest of 1910-11 earned him another arrest and exile to the south, where he carried on underground revolutionary work; he was arrested again and exiled to Vologda, where according to Ivanov-Razumnik (on page 298 of his memoirs) “he met and became great friends with MI Ulyanova, Lenin’s sister, who was then herself living there. This high-level friendship had, until 1930, saved him from the kind of persecutions to which other prominent SRs had been subjected.” He decided to use his time in exile “exclusively for literary work,” as he wrote a friend. He published articles on Korolenko, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Chekhov, among others, but it was Pyotr Lavrov to whom he mainly dedicated himself; an article in Sbornik says “Known in literary circles under the pen name of Piotr Vitiazev, he distinguished himself with his study of Lavrov, a Russian revolutionary, anthropologist and philosopher, whose works and letters he published after the revolution.”
At the end of 1915 he joined the army, temporarily abandoning his literary activity. After the Revolution, he organized first the cooperative publishing enterprise Revolyutsionnaya mysl (Revolutionary Thought, 1917-18), and then Kolos (1918 to 1925 or 1926, depending on the source; you can see their printer’s mark here), which published memoirs, literature, materials on the history of social thought, and books on various fields of knowledge; he also wrote and published books on bibliography and the book business as well as his works on Lavrov. He helped Sorokin get his System of Sociology published in 1920 (page 94 of Sorokin’s autobiography); after Sedenko and colleagues secretly printed the two volumes (forging the Communist censorship permission) and ten thousand copies were distributed, the government found out and ordered all copies confiscated and destroyed (though they could find few copies to seize): “Of course the Communist police tried to arrest me and Sedenko, but, expecting the arrest, we ‘ducked underground’ and remained there until we could safely re-emerge.”
At this time there was much discussion of the extent to which the state should control publishing; on Dec. 22, 1920, Gorky published an open letter to the Eighth Congress of Soviets in which he insisted that private publishers should be allowed to exist alongside Gosizdat, the state publishing agency, and Sedenko tried to publish a similar argument but was not given permission to. There remained to him what he called “the old method, already used more than once, of resorting to the assistance of an unofficial printing press,”and his pamphlet Частные издательства в Советской России (“Private publishers in Soviet Russia”), by P. Vityazev, appeared in 1921. In it he recounts the struggle of private presses to survive and argues against Gosizdat’s attacks on them. He insists that private presses are essential for the normal development of literature and culture. He writes: “It is extremely harmful to force the scientific and artistic thought of the country to pass through the narrow crucible of a single government organ… The centralization of all scientific literature in the hands of Gosizdat will inevitably lead to every sort of slaying of critical thought [неизбежно поведет ко всякому убиению критической мысли]”; history shows that government regulation is “real death for the development of creativity in all literature and art [подлинная смерть для развития творчества во всей литературе, во всем искусстве].” This argument is much more pleasing to us today than it was to the Soviet rulers, and it did not win out. [There is a long discussion of the pamphlet, with many quotes, at Leo Pasvolsky’s “The Soviet Censor at Work in Russia,” in the April 1922 issue of McClure’s—thanks, MMcM!]
In April 1930 he was arrested and sent to a Gulag camp building the White Sea Canal, but was released after the intervention of Lenin’s sister and Vera Figner, who had known him in the old days, and in 1933 he even received permission to live in Moscow. But Stalin was determined to wipe out the SRs, and he was rearrested on April 3, 1938, “tried” on June 14, and shot the same day.
Incidentally, Chukovsky’s entry begins with this, which is left untranslated in the Yale edition: “Был у меня Гумилев: принес от Анны Николаевны (своей жены) 1/2 фунта крупы – в подарок – из Бежецка. Говорит, что дров никаких: топили шкафом, но шкаф дал мало жару. Я дал ему взаймы 36 полен. Он увез их на Бобиных санях.” [Gumilyov came to see me; he brought 1/2 pound of groats from Bezhetsk as a gift from Anna Nikolaevna (his wife). He says they have no firewood; they burned a wardrobe, but it didn’t give much heat. I loaned him 36 logs; he took them home on Boba’s sled.] This is the latest in a disturbing pattern of omitting parts of entries that reflect on the hardships of the times; for instance, the Nov. 13 entry omits a passage on the lack of food (“Yesterday I went to bed hungry. All day I had only rusks and soup!”). I myself would have included more of those telling details, if need be cutting a little of the literary gossip to make room for them.