I’m reading N. N. Sukhanov’s The Russian Revolution 1917, the only full-length eyewitness account of the 1917 revolutions, and I just got to this on page 62: “Braunstein proposed that directives be given… for district committees to be formed, and for plenipotentiary Commissars to be appointed in each district to restore order and direct the struggle against anarchy and pogroms.” I quote from the OED citation, but I have a gripe against the OED here. Why on earth would they quote that line and not the far more interesting footnote that is appended to it? The footnote reads: “Braunstein, by the way, was the first of us to use this word Commissar, which was later so needlessly misused.” This Braunstein (actually Brounshtein, Михаил Адамович Броунштейн) is an exceedingly minor and utterly forgotten figure, but he apparently introduced an old word equivalent to commissioner into the context in which it developed the only meaning most of us associate with it; you’d think that would be worth a mention, as would the fact that Sukhanov is talking about February/March 1917, which antedates their first citation, 1918 tr. Lenin’s Less. Revolution (title-p.), By Vladimir Oulianow (N. Lenin) President of the Council of People’s Commissars.

The full Sukhanov quote in Russian reads:

Он предлагает немедленно дать директивы в районы через присутствующих делегатов о назначении каждым заводом милиции (по 100 человек на тысячу), об образовании районных комитетов и о назначении в районы полномочных комиссаров для руководства водворением порядка и борьбой с анархией и погромами [Между прочим. М. А. Броунштейн у нас первый ввел в употребление это слово “комиссар” которым без нужды так злоупотребляли впоследствии].


  1. Thank you for the quote, it’s really illuminating.

  2. How did you find this text (in Russian)?
    I wonder what Berberova thought about Sukhanov, especially since she was very close to Gorky a little later than March’17.

  3. I googled Суханов, Записки and then searched on names.
    Berberova’s only reference to S. is on page 53 of my translation: “Yet at that time [during WWI, if I’m reading her correctly] I already knew what distinguished Martov from Sukhanov and Spiridonova from Bliumkin!”

  4. No, I wondered what she thought about him, not what she wrote.
    She spoke quite openly about her intended omissions and “creative composition” in her memoir, by whatever reason, political and Russian-emigre-community relations included.

  5. Would this Braunstein have been related to Trotsky?

  6. Heh. A natural thought, but no, Trotsky was Bronshtein, not Brounshtein.

  7. Alex Polevitsky says

    With due respect, your Russian source seems to have a mis-OCR right in the first clause. It should read директивы в районы (“instructions to district constituencies”, to that effect), rather than директивы и районы.

  8. Thanks, and no need for any due respect — I caught another typo myself (they had his middle initial as L rather than A in that parenthesis/footnote). Sloppy, but it’s good to have it online anyway.

  9. Well, this pisses me off. I checked the commissar entry and found it was revised in 2015, but it still begins:

    1.a. Chiefly with capital initial. In full People’s Commissar. In the Russian Republic and later the Soviet Union: a member of an executive committee of senior government officials formed after the October Revolution of 1917, known as the Council of People’s Commissars (cf. Sovnarkom n.). Also: the head of a government department in the Soviet Union or any of its constituent republics. Cf. commissariat n. 3. Now historical.
    In 1946 the title of commissar was replaced by ministr ‘minister’.

    1918 By Vladimir Oulianow (N. Lenin) President of the Council of People’s Commissars… Published by the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda attached to the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.
    translation of V. Lenin, Lessons Russ. Revol. (title page)

    As I explained in the post, the title was created before October, in February/March 1917, and did not originally mean “a member of an executive committee of senior government officials” but a district honcho in charge of local activities. They’ve had quite a while to figure this out.

  10. Was the original English meaning the same as the original Russian meaning, or had it already changed meaning by the time Lenin’s title was Englished in 1918? In any case Brounshtein did not write in English and should be mentioned in the etymology section rather than in the definitions or citations.

  11. Fair enough, but they should still not give the impression the word was created post-October.

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