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Radek, Karl

(1885–1939), international revolutionary activist and publicist. Born in Lwów, Karl Radek (originally surnamed Sobel’son) grew up in Tarnów, in his mother’s family, where the German culture was dominant. In gymnasium he was attracted by the ideas of Polish nationalism, which influenced his choice of pseudonym. The surname Radek was adopted after the name of the hero of a novel about Polish students’ revolutionary struggle. Later Radek became acquainted with German social-democratic literature and launched social-democratic propaganda in his gymnasium, which led to his expulsion from school in 1901.

Radek then became active in the Polish Social Democratic movement in Kraków, joining the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) in 1905; a year later, that party entered the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDRP). In 1905 he participated in revolutionary events in Warsaw. He was arrested in 1906 and spent six months in prison, where he learned Russian and read Lenin, Plekhanov, and Marx. Deported to Austria in 1907, in 1908 Radek moved to Germany, where he contributed to the left-wing Social Democratic press; he also wrote widely for the revolutionary press in Russian and Polish.

From the beginning of World War I, Radek adopted an internationalist, antiwar position. He immigrated to Switzerland, where he began a political association with Lenin. Together with Lenin and Zinov’ev, he helped to establish the Zimmerwald Left group of revolutionary socialists in 1915. Radek took part in organizing Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks’ return to Russia through German territory after the February 1917 Revolution, though he himself went only as far as Stockholm, where he remained as representative of the Bolshevik Central Committee.

After the October Revolution Radek went to Petrograd, assuming responsibility for international propaganda at the Narodnyi Komissariat po Istrannym Delam (People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs; NKID). Beginning in March 1918, he directed both NKID’s Central European Department and the Foreign Relations Department of the Vserossiiskii Tsentralnyi Ispolinitelnyi Komitet (All-Russian Central Executive Committee; VTsIK). When the German Revolution began in November 1918, Radek departed illegally for the First Congress of Soviets of Germany. He was arrested in Berlin in 1919. That same year, the Russian Communist Party elected him in absentia to its Central Committee. He returned to Russia in January 1920.

From 1920 to 1924 Radek was a member of the Communist International (Comintern) Executive Committee. He acquired a reputation as a virtuoso of Bolshevik journalism. In October 1923 the Comintern sent him back to Germany to direct preparations for a proletarian insurrection. The uprising in Hamburg had been intended to ignite a strike throughout the country and a subsequent proletarian revolution; when it failed, Radek’s position in the Comintern was undermined. He soon received another blow with Lenin’s death.

In the struggle that followed, Radek supported Trotsky. This led to his removal in 1924 from both the Party Central Committee and the Comintern Executive. From 1925 to 1927 he served as rector of the Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow. In 1927 Radek was expelled from the Communist Party as a participant in the Trotskyite opposition. In 1928 he was accused of anti-Soviet activity and sentenced to three years’ exile in Siberia. In 1929, Radek, together with Ivar Smilga and Evgenii Preobrazhenskii, sent a letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee declaring their renunciation of Trotskyism. He was soon released and in 1930 reinstated into the party.

From 1932 to 1936 Radek headed the Central Committee International Information Bureau and directed the international coverage of the government newspaper Izvestiia. He zealously exposed the opposition and flattered Stalin. In 1936 Radek was arrested again and became the main figure in the show trial of the “Parallel Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center” in January 1937. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, but was murdered in prison by criminals. In 1988 the USSR Supreme Court rehabilitated him. Bright and sharp-witted, cynical, free of moral restraints, and prone to opportunism, Radek was one of the most controversial figures among the Jewish participants in the international revolutionary movement.

Suggested Reading

Oleg Ken, “Karl Radek i Biuro Mezhdunarodnoi Informatsii TsK VKP(b), 1932–1934 gg,” Cahiers du monde russe 44.1 (January–March 2003): 135–178; Warren Lerner, Karl Radek, the Last Internationalist (Stanford, Calif., 1970); Ernst Pawel, “Karl Radek: A Forgotten Pillar of Bolshevism,” Midstream 18 (May 1972): 33–45; Karl Bernhardovich Radek, “Autobiography,” in Makers of the Russian Revolution, ed. Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie, pp. 361–384 (London, 1974); Jim Tuck, Engine of Mischief: An Analytical Biography of Karl Radek (New York, 1988).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson