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Alexander Parvus
Alexander Parvus in 1905
Alexander Parvus in 1905
Born (1867-09-08)September 8, 1867
Berazino, Russian Empire
Died December 12, 1924(1924-12-12) (aged 57)
Berlin, Weimar Republic
Nationality Germany

Alexander Lvovich Parvus (Russian: Алекса́ндр Льво́вич Па́рвус), born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand (Russian: Изра́иль Ла́заревич Ге́льфанд) (1867-1924), was a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and a controversial activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He also is said to have acted as a German intelligence agent.


Early life

Israel Lazarevich Gelfand was born to an ethnic Jewish family on September 8 [O.S. August 27] 1867 in the shtetl of Berazino, now part of Belarus. Although little is known of Israel's early childhood, the Gelfand family was of the lower middle class with his father working as an artisan of some sort — perhaps as a locksmith or a blacksmith.[1] When Israel was a small boy the family's home in Berazino was destroyed by a fire, prompting a move to the city of Odessa in Ukraine, the hometown of Israel's paternal grandfather.[2]

Gelfand attended gymnasium in Odessa and received private tutoring in the humanities.[3] He also read widely on his own, including material by the iconic Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, the journalist Nikolai Mikhailovsky, and political satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin which led the young Gelfand to begin to question the legitimacy of the tsarist regime.[4]


In 1886 the 19-year old Gelfand first traveled from Russia to Basel, Switzerland.[5] It was there that Gelfand was first exposed to the writings of Alexander Herzen as well as the revolutionary literature of the day.[6] He returned to Russia briefly the following year but he became the subject of official scrutiny by the tsarist secret police and was forced to leave the country again for his safety.[7] He would remain abroad for more than a decade.[7]

Returning to Switzerland, in the fall of 1888 Gelfand enrolled at the University of Basle, where he studied political economy.[8] Gelfand would remain at the university for the next three years, graduating with a doctorate degree in July 1891.[9] Gelfand's professors were largely hostile to his Marxist approach to economics, however, and difficulty in his oral examination resulted in a rider being attached to the degree which rendered it the equivalent of a third class degree.[9]

Gelfand chose not to pursue an academic career but rather sought to begin a political career which would both provide him financial support and serve the cause of socialism.[10] Alienated from the backwardness of agrarian Russia and the limited political horizons there, Gelfand moved to Germany, joined the Social Democratic Party and befriended German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. In 1900, he met Vladimir Lenin for the first time, in Munich, each admiring the other's theoretical works. Parvus encouraged Lenin to begin publishing his revolutionary paper Iskra.[11]

Parvus' attempts to become a German citizen proved fruitless. He once commented in a letter to his German friend Wilhelm Liebknecht that "I am seeking a government where one can inexpensively acquire a fatherland."[12] Consequently for many years he attempted to immigrate to the United States.[citation needed] His socialist revolutionary compatriots were already busy establishing a network of mostly Jewish revolutionaries in the United States,[citation needed] including Leon Trotsky who briefly moved to New York City.

However, German counter-intelligence had penetrated part of the socialist revolutionary network and upon reading his writing in the socialist press during the Russo-Japanese War, found Parvus had predicted that Russia would lose the war, resulting in unrest and revolution. When this proved to be the case, Parvus' prestige among his socialist and other German comrades increased. Thus, German intelligence soon estimated he would be useful in efforts against the Russian Empire.

During this time he developed the concept of using a foreign war to provoke an internal revolt within a country. It was at this time that Parvus revived, from Karl Marx, the concept-strategy of "permanent revolution". He communicated this philosophy to Trotsky who then further expanded and developed it. Through Trotsky, the method was eventually adopted by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Lenin's April Theses in 1917.[11]

Russian Revolution of 1905

In 1905, Parvus arrived in St. Petersburg with false Austro-Hungarian papers. Parvus was regarded among European Marxists of the day as an authority on political and financial questions;[13] consequently when he authored a provocative article In December entitled The Financial Manifesto, which described the Russian economy as being on the verge of collapse it received broad play in the press.

In combination with this propaganda, Parvus coordinated an agitation of locals to feign a run on the banks. As the news of the article and the subsequent "rush" was spread, the consequent hysteria managed to upset the economy and enrage prime minister Sergei Witte, but did not cause a financial collapse.

In connection with this provocation and Parvus' involvement in the organization of anti-government actions during the 1905 revolution, Parvus (together with other revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky) was arrested by the Russian police. While in prison he became close with other revolutionaries, and was visited by Rosa Luxemburg.[citation needed] Sentenced to three years exile in Siberia, Parvus escaped and emigrated to Germany, where he published a book about his experiences called In the Russian Bastile during the Revolution.

A. Parvus (left) with Leon Trotsky (center) and Leo Deutsch (right) in prison

The Maxim Gorky affair

While in Germany, Parvus struck a deal with Russian author Maxim Gorky to produce his play The Lower Depths. According to the agreement, the majority of the play's proceeds were to go to the Russian Social Democratic Party (and approximately 25% to Gorky himself). Parvus' failure to pay (despite the fact that the play had over 500 showings) caused him to be accused of stealing 130,000 German gold marks. Gorky threatened to sue, but Rosa Luxemburg convinced Gorky to keep the quarrel inside the party's own court. Eventually, Parvus paid back Gorky, but his reputation in party circles was damaged.

Istanbul period

Soon afterwards Parvus moved to Istanbul in Turkey, where he lived for five years.[14] There he set up an arms trading company which profited handsomely during the Balkan War. He became the financial and political advisor of the Young Turks. In 1912 he was made editor of Turk Yurdu, their daily newspaper. He worked closely with the triumvirs known as the Three Pashas - Enver, Talat and Cemal - and Finance Minister Djavid Bey. His firm dealt with the deliveries of foodstuffs for the Turkish army and he was a business partner of the Krupp concern, of Vickers Limited, and of the famous arms dealer Basil Zaharov.[15] Arms dealings with Vickers Limited at war time gave basis to the theory that Alexander Parvus was also a British intelligence asset.

Russian Revolution

While in Turkey, Parvus became close with German ambassador Baron Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim who was known to be partial to establishing revolutionary fifth columns among the allies. Consequently, Parvus offered his plan via Baron von Wangenheim to the German General Staff: the paralyzing of Russia via general strike, financed by the German government[16] (which, at the time, was at war with Russia and its allies). Von Wagenheim sent Parvus to Berlin where the latter arrived on the 6 March 1915 and presented a 20 page plan titled A preparation of massive political strikes in Russia to the German government.[17]

Parvus' detailed plan recommended the division of Russia by sponsoring the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, encouraging ethnic separatists in various Russian regions, and supporting various writers whose criticism of Tsarism continued during wartime. Basing himself on his 1905 experiences, Parvus theorised that the division of Russia and its loss in the First World War was the best way to bring about a socialist revolution.

Copenhagen operation

Some accuse Parvus of having funded Lenin while in Switzerland. Historians, however, are skeptical. A biography of Parvus by the authors Scharlau and Zeman have concluded that there was no cooperation between the two. It declared that "Lenin refused the German offer of aid." Parvus's bank account shows that he only paid out a total of 25,600 francs in the period between his arrival in Switzerland in May 1915 and the February Revolution of 1917. Parvus did little in Switzerland, historians conclude.[18] Austrian intelligence through Parvus gave money to Russian emigre newspapers in Paris. But when the sources of this funding became clear in the beginning of 1915 and more widely understood—Lenin and the emigres in Paris rejected such support. Harold Shukman has concluded, "Funds were plainly not flowing into Lenin's hands" [19]

Parvus placed his bets on Lenin, as the latter was not only a radical but willing to accept the sponsorship of the Tsar's wartime enemy, Germany. The two met in Bern in May 1915 and agreed to collaboration through their organizations, though Lenin remained very careful never to get associated with Parvus in public. There is no certain proof that they ever met face to face again, although there are indications that such a meeting may well have occurred on April 13, 1917 during Lenin's stop-over in Stockholm.[20]

Parvus assiduously worked at keeping Lenin's confidence, however Lenin kept him at arms length to disguise the changing roles of both men, Parvus involvement with German intelligence and his own liaisons with his old ally, who was not respected anymore among the socialists after his years in Turkey and after becoming a millionaire entrepreneur.[21] German intelligence set up Parvus' financial network via offshore operations in Copenhagen, setting up relays for German money to get to Russia via fake financial transactions between front organizations. A large part of the transactions of these companies were genuine, but those served to bury the transfer of money to the Bolsheviks, a strategy made feasible by the weak and overburdened fiscal and customs offices in Scandinavia, which were inadequate for the booming black market in these countries during the war.

It is still debated to the present day whether the money with which this financial network operated was actually of German origin. The evidence published by Alexander Kerensky's Government in preparation for a trial scheduled for October (November) 1917 was recently reexamined and found to be either inconclusive or outright forgery.[22] (See also Sisson Documents)

However, setbacks occurred, as Yakov Ganetsky's suspicious arms smuggling activities drew unwanted attention from the British Secret Intelligence Service who now traced Ganetsky to Parvus and hence to Baron von Wangenheim. The Baron had long been under surveillance for his support of the Young Turks' revolutionary actions against the British. As a result Ganetsky was forced out of Denmark, while attempts were made by the British and Russians to stamp out the Bolshevik's financial network in Turkey. Additionally, as Lenin became more and more aware of Parvus' relations with German intelligence their relations became increasingly strained. Losing the confidence and/or control of his agents, Parvus began looking for other avenues of operation.

Parvus' reputation with the German ministry of foreign affairs came into question when in the winter of 1916 a Parvus planned financial catastrophe in St. Petersburg (akin to Parvus' provocation against the Russian banks in 1905) failed to produce a massive uprising. As a result, financing for Parvus' operations were frozen. Parvus went for support to the German Navy, briefly working as their advisor. He managed to help prevent Russian naval Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak from taking on his offensive against the Turko-German Fleet in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles by planning the sabotage of a major Russian warship. This success gave him more credibility, once again, in the eyes of the Germans.

In March 1917, in a plan strategized together with Parvus, German intelligence sent Vladimir Lenin and a group of 30 of his revolutionary associates from Switzerland through Germany in a train car under supervision of Swiss socialist Fritz Platten.[23]

Leon Trotsky has responded to these allegations in Volume 2 Chapter 4 of his History of the Russian Revolution.

Spartacist uprising

As the depth of Parvus' arrangements with the Imperial Government became known, the revelations ruined relations with the rest of the revolutionary network including Rosa Luxemburg and other German socialists who were engaging in the subversion of the German Empire. Despite evidence showing that Parvus had never betrayed German socialists to the authorities, his credibility among the revolutionary elite went sour.

As his political activity waned, the war ground to a halt, and he refused to help the new German authorities smash the Spartacist uprising, he retreated to a German island near Berlin. Despite his failure to help the new Weimar Republic regime he was well provided for, living in a well-appointed 32-room mansion in Berlin's Peacock Island. He later published his memoirs from this residence.

Death and legacy

Parvus died in Berlin on December 12, 1924. His body was cremated and interred in a Berlin cemetery. After his death Konrad Haenisch wrote in his memoir "This man possessed the ablest brains of the Second International"[24]

During his lifetime Alexander Parvus' reputation among his revolutionary peers suffered as a result of the Maxim Gorky affair and the fact that he was in effect a German government agent. At the same time both his business skills and revolutionary ideas were appreciated and relied upon by Russian and German revolutionaries and Ottoman's Young Turks. After the October Revolution in Russia for obvious political reasons his role was denied and he himself vilified. This continued during Joseph Stalin's era and sometimes had anti-semitic overtones to it. In Germany however he was considered favorably.[Clarification needed][16] His name is often used in modern political debates in Russia[15]

Surprisingly, Parvus has left no documents after his death and all of his savings disappeared. Both of his surviving sons became Soviet diplomats [25] although one died in the gulag and the other disappeared.[citation needed]


  1. Z.A.B. Zeman and W.B. Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution: The Life of Alexander Israel Helphand (Parvus), 1867-1924. London: Oxford University Press, 1965; pg. 8.
  2. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 9.
  3. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 10.
  4. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pp. 10-11.
  5. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pp. 11 and 16.
  6. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 12.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 14.
  8. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 16.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 18.
  10. Zeman and Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution, pg. 19.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Александр Парвус (Израиль Гельфанд)," Khronos, Accessed September 27, 2009.
  12. L. Shub, "Kupets revoliutsii" (Mechant of the Revolution), Novyi zhurnal [New York], vol. 87 (1967), page 296. Cited in "Александр Парвус (Израиль Гельфанд)," Khronos, Accessed September 27, 2009.
  13. J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia. London: Oxford University Press, 1963; pg. 191.
  14. Karaömerlioglu, Asim (November 2004). ""Helphand-Parvus and his impact on Turkish intellectual life".". Vol. 40, No. 6, pages 145-165. Middle Eastern Studies. Retrieved 2006-12-17. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 (Russian) Галковский, Дмитрий (June 22, 2005). "Березовский – между Азефом и Парвусом (Berezovsky - between Azef and Parvus)". Деловая газета «Взгляд». Archived from the original on 31 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-17. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Schurer, Heinz (October 1959). ""Alexander Helphand-Parvus–Russian Revolutionary and German Patriot".". Vol. 18, No. 4, pages 313-331. Russian Review. Retrieved 2006-12-17. 
  17. (Russian) Парвус, Александр (February 1915). "Подготовка массовой политической забастовки в России (A preparation of massive political strikes in Russia)". ХРОНОС. Retrieved 2006-12-17. 
  18. Alfred Erich Senn, "The Myth of German Money during the First World War", Soviet Studies, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, January 1976, pp.83-90 <83:TMOGMD>2.0.CO;2-W
  19. Harold Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Putnam Pub Group, 1967
  20. Hans Björkegren, Ryska posten: de ryska revolutionärerna i Norden 1906-1917 (in Swedish), 1985, Bonnier Fakta, Stockholm; we know that Parvus sent a number of messages to Lenin that day and tried to coax a meeting, and some sources suggest that such an encounter did in fact happen before Lenin went north and home
  21. Michael Pearson, The Sealed Train, London, 1975, ch.4
  22. Semion Lyandres The Bolsheviks' "German Gold" Revisited: An Inquiry into the 1917 Accusations
  23. (German)Pößneck, Ehrenfried Lenin als Kontrahent von Parvus im Jahr 1917. Schkeuditz : GNN-Verlag, 1997. ISBN 3-932725-05-0; D. Stove, The question about Parvus (1991).
  24. (German)Haenisch, Konrad Parvus : ein Blatt der Erinnerung. Berlin Verl. für Sozialwissenschaft, 1925
  25. Stephen F. Cohen in the introduction to Anna Larina's book "This I Cannot Forget" mentions the son of Parvus, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gnedin. Gnedin was a Soviet journalist and a diplomat, who in his memoirs "Catastrophe and Rebirth" and in "Exit from the Labyrinth" described many years of Stalinist camps and exile.

Further reading

  • Karaömerlıoğlu, M. Asim (November 2014). "Helphand-Parvus and His Impact on Turkish Intellectual Life". pp. 145–165. JSTOR 
  • Pearson, Michael (1975). The Sealed Train: Journey to Revolution, Lenin – 1917. London: Macmillan. 

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