Blast from the Past: The Anarchist Red Cross Arestantin and Bouren Balls

A big part of the work Denver ABC does is raise funds to support those who are locked up for their beliefs and action towards liberation.  Our biggest event of the year is Martyr’s Ball, a dance where radicals dress up as political martyrs and fallen comrades.  Coincidentally, some of the very first Anarchist Black Cross chapters (then called the Anarchist Red Cross) organized similar events.  Boris Yelensky, an anarchist Russian immigrant to the US, wrote an extensive history of ABC entitled The Stuggle for Equality.  In it he recounts some of those dances.

Arestantin Ball

From 1908 to after the Russian Revolution of 1917 the New York Anarchist Red Cross numbered in the hundreds.  Their largest event of the year was the Arestantin Ball (Prisoners’ Ball).  The event became so big that

every year a larger hall had to be found to accommodate the people who wished to attend, and even then hundreds were often turned away because there was no room for them. The mention of the Arestantin Ball arouses vivid recollections of those early days of the A.R.C. Thousands of gay people, full of vigor and hope, danced all kinds of Russian dances; the hall itself was decorated in the spirit of the event, and, in order to remind the dancers that in faraway Russia and Siberia people were suffering for a cause we all believed in, there would be tableaux in which young men and women would appear dressed in Russian prisoners’ garb, with their hands and feet chained and with soldiers and policemen in Russian uniform guarding them.”

Philadelphia ARC began organizing their own Prisoners’ Ball in 1912.  To spread the word, ARC members would go to other dances in the city dressed as prisoners and pass out leaflets for the upcoming event.   At the Jewish Daily Forward’s annual masked ball anarchists arranged to erect a tent which depicted three scenes: Russian political prisoners being marched through the Siberian tundra to their place of confinement, life inside a Siberian prison cell, and lastly a re-enactment of Russian political prisoner Egor Sazonoff’s suicide.  The costumes and dramatic depictions of political persecution were wildly popular and when it came to the costume contest the crowd went wild for the Philly anarchists, but since it was a Socialist organized ball they were instead given second place and the $25 prize that went with it.  Still, the ARC left its impression on the ball participants and its own Prisoner’s Ball was wildly successful, and continued to be for several years to come.

Bouren Ball

In Chicago, the ARC was founded in 1909 and its membership swelled to 300 during the Russian liquidation going on in 1917.  They organized two balls a year, the Bouren Ball (Peasant Ball) on Thanksgiving Day, and the Arestantin Ball in March.

At the Bouren Ball organizers mocked the institution of marriage and creatively raised even more money during the ball.

Long wires were strung across the hall, from which were suspended various fruits which represented the “forbidden fruit” of the Garden of Eden. Around the hall were booths in which stood members of the organizing committee, dressed as priests of the various religious denominations, as well as girls in peasants dresses and young men in the uniforms of policemen and soldiers. The girls would propose marriage to the men with whom they danced, and when the men refused them the girls would call upon the policemen or soldiers for help; the men would be arrested and taken before one of the priests, who would perform a ceremony of marriage, give the girl a ring and collect a fee from the man. Afterwards the girl would demand a divorce, and the man would be brought before the judge, who would ask for a second fee for dissolving the marriage.

In addition, any man who wished to twist one of the forbidden fruits from its wire would be arrested and fined. These fees and fines brought in most of the proceeds of this event.”

The ball ended with a Grand March, led by a giant rooster, followed by the “representatives of the State and of Religion,” and then by those in peasant costume and the general public.  Like our own Martyr’s Ball, prizes were given out for the best costumes and the girls who had been married and divorced the most by the end of the night.

In 1913, the Chicago Arestantin Ball was taken to another level when Philly anarchists were in town and together with those in Chicago ARC came up with the idea of “living pictures” from Bolshevik Russia.

There were representations of street demonstrations, fights at the barricades, arrests, political prisoners on the march to Siberia, life in prison, and, at the end, a grand tableau of Hope. This was in the form of a pyramid; at the bottom lay the defeated Tsar, with his brutal police and army officers and priests, on the pyramid itself stood peasants, workers, intellectual and students, representing the people of Russia with their longing for freedom, and on top was the statue of liberty with a torch in her hand- played by a school girl named Emma Avedon whose long Blonde hair, spreading over her shoulders, made her portrayal extremely effective. This final tableau made a deep impression; one could see on the faces of those who watched how deeply they were moved by the memory of what they had lived through and by their hopes for a better future in their homeland.”

When DABC formed, we decided in part to take on the name Anarchist Black Cross to intentionally link our work to the generations of anarchists and other radicals who have struggled before us to resist state repression and bring about another world.  It’s exciting to learn from and be inspired by those anarchists before us who also raised important funds in creative and festive ways.  The ways that art, satire, music and celebration were used a hundred years ago shows just how similar we still are to those who came before us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: