Wales and the Russian revolution


“There was no place outside of Russia where the Revolution has caused greater joy than in Merthyr Tydfil” claimed The Pioneer newspaper in May 1917. Especially so for a violinist named Eduard Soermus then living in the town.

Soermus was born in Estonia and developed his skills as a violinist at the Saint Peterburg Conservatoire. But his support for the Russian revolution of 1905 meant that he had to leave Russia when that revolution was crushed. He became something of a hero amongst opponents of Tzar Nicholas 11 and the artist Marc Chagall painted Soermus as The Blue Violinist.

He would have been warmly welcomed in south Wales, especially after the successful Russian revolution in February 1917. “I remember the miners when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown” recalled Nye Bevan, “rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands.”

There were cautionary voices. Llais Llafur/Labour Voice warned in May 1917 about a group called the Bolsheviks “at present not very numerous and likely to grow.” The newspaper compared them with the Jacobins during the French revolution who the newspaper claimed had “made a sorry mess of things” leading to “dictatorship, Napoleon and downfall.”

But as the Llanelly Star saw it “since the fall of the Bastille, there had been no such wonderful event in human history as the Russian revolution” and the revolution’s supporters planned a South Wales Workers and Soldiers Council, on the lines of the Russian Soviets, in the Swansea Elysium on July 29th 1917.

It was clear that the Council, like the Soviets, would oppose Britain’s role in the First World War and some ex-Servicemen in Swansea gathered their forces in Victoria Park to break up the event. Over 500 pro-war demonstrators incited, according to The Pioneer, by a “stop-at-nothing-short-of-murder-parson”, attacked the trade unionists in the Elysium with an assortment of weapons. Miners’ leader Arthur Horner, said The Pioneer, “had had his teeth punched out of his head” and the meeting of the first Welsh Soviet came to an abrupt end.

None of this seems to have deterred Eduard Soermus. He toured the working men’s institutes of south Wales, often accompanied on the piano by his British wife Virginia, garnering rave reviews. His performance of, among other pieces, a Bach Chaconne and Ar Hyd a Nos was described in the local paper as “one of the finest musical programmes ever given in Ammanford.”  And, whilst there was a sharp division of opinion about the War and the Bolshevik takeover in October of 1917, there was widespread opposition to British intervention in Russia after the War had ended.

On January 26th 1919 at the Workmen’s Institute Bargoed, Eduard Soermus decided to speak out about it during one of his concerts. This led to a soldier in the audience interrupting and claiming that Soermus was “urging that our streets be made to run with blood.” Despite Morgan Jones, the M.C. of the concert, insisting that Soermus had said no such thing and had simply objected to “our Russian campaign”, an ex-servicemen’s meeting in Treherbert then weighed in too. It protested “against the Government’s toleration of Soermus preaching revolution in South Wales while camouflaged as a Russian violinst" and called for his immediate arrest and deportation.

A letter writer to the Cambria Daily Leader also objected to “that insolent Russian Bolshevist violinist from Merthyr” and on February 14th 1919 the Abergavenny Chronicle reported that he had been arrested under the Aliens Restriction Act and deported.

The South Wales Miners Federation had no misgivings about the Bolshevik takeover of the revolution and voted to join the Red International of Labour Unions created by the new Soviet government. But it soon became possible for Welsh miners to hear a critical view from an anarchist eye-witness of the revolution.  On May 25th 1925, the Amman Valley Chronicle recorded that, after a speech in Gwaun-cae-gurwen by Emma Goldman, a motion was passed registering an “emphatic protest against the conspiracy of silence and boycott of Emma Goldman’s exposure of the Russian dictatorship.”

Meanwhile Eduard Soermus had moved to Germany where his popular concerts raised money for orphanages there. On at least two occasions, thanks to the support of Richard Wallhead, the MP for Merthyr, he was allowed back into Britain to visit his wife and son. But in Germany the Red Violinist, as he was labelled, became a target of the police and of the Nazi Party; they broke his violin at a concert in Magdeburg and later murdered his Jewish landlord in Dresden.

Eventually Soermus went back to Russia for good, in 1936 the time of the most brutal period of Stalinist repression. He died in 1940 but whether his remaining years in the Soviet Union led to him becoming disillusioned with the Bolshevik brand of communism, history does not record.  

Colin Thomas  is the author of the book/DVD “Dreaming A City – from Wales to Ukraine” (Y Lolfa) and the app “The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr” (Thud Media) on Welsh emigration to America.