Russia in the nineteenth century was an autocracy, a state ruled by a single powerful person, the Tsar. In 1869, the year Goldman was born, the leader of the Russian state was Tsar Alexander II, the so-called “Great Reformer.” Russia, like the United States, had a long history of slavery. In Russia, unlike in the United States, slavery was based on social status, not on race. Slaves in Russia were called “serfs”; they were owned by the nobility and forced to work the land for the profit of the noble lords. While slavery was officially abolished in the United States after the Civil War, the Russians abolished serfdom in 1861 through war buTsarist decree. Life for blacks in the United States remained very difficult after emancipation, first and foremost in the realms of politics and economics. This situation was the result of regressive politics, domestic terrorism, and profound and widespread discrimination throughout American institutions. In Russia, the serfs faced similar challenges. Not only did serfs have no way to better their station in Russia after 1861, they had even been forced by Alexander to buy their small plots of land from the landlords on credit, a practice which enriched the nobility while sinking millions of serfs into a spiral of ever-increasing debt. Added to the misery of the peasants was the looming threat of military conscription. The Russian state would come into towns and seize able-bodied men to serve in the imperial army. With a twenty-five-year term of service, conscription equalled imprisonment and often death. Families tried to hide their boys from the recruiters; everyone dreaded visits by army personnel.
If being a peasant in Russia were bad, being a Jew was worse. Antisemitism in the Russian Empire was widespread and potent. Violence against Jews came not only from the government, it also came from the vast peasantry. Pogroms, outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence, were frequent during these years in Russia. They targeted Jewish lives and property in bloody spasms of destruction. Official restrictions also existed for Jews. Jews were prohibited from traveling into mainland Russia and were barred from most types of employment and nearly all institutions of higher education. On the level of the family, Jews were expected to marry Jews. Marriages within the Jewish community were arranged for the benefit of the entire family, not for the happiness of one member, and certainly not for any notion of love. A girl moved from under a fatherʼs roof to serve a husband, who had similar paternal authority over her. In other words, as a female, lower-middle class Jew in tsarist Russia, Emma Goldmanʼs world was a severely restrictive one. Having life options was rare for a girl at this time. The rule was obedience, following the prescribed paths dictated by authority, serving and acquiescing to the more powerful around you.
Emma Goldman was deeply moved by the circumstances around her during her early life. She testifies in later years to the profound sorrow she felt for peasants and Jews when they were brutalized or humiliated by the authorities. She felt sorrow when young men were hauled away for military service, most never to be seen again. Goldmanʼs world, in other words, was full of the drama of power against the powerless, of authority exerting force over the common people. It was a world full of religious intolerance and nearly universal discrimination against women. As a child, Goldman sought solace in art and literature, but she soon realized that this was not enough.
In 1882, Goldman moved with her family to the Russian capital city of St. Petersburg. Previously, she had been in the German city of Königsburg studying at a German school and living with her aunt. Now she found herself back in the domineering domain of her father. She also found herself in the middle of one of the most chaotic periods of nineteenth century Russian history. The year before, in 1881, an anarchist group had carried out the successful assassination of the Tsar Alexander II. The new tsar, Alexander III, soon began a campaign of repression and a crackdown against dissent. This “anti-radical” campaign led to a spike in anti-Jewish violence. Around her, members of the Russian intelligentsia were being rounded up as conspirators and executed. Again, as in her childhood town, Goldman was experiencing the imbalance between those in power and the powerless.
Goldman became caught up in the sentiment of the Russian intelligentsia. She saw its movement as a great campaign for justice against unrelenting tyranny. She knew tyranny well: its tentacles reached down into her own house. At the age of seventeen, Goldman took a job in a corset factory in an effort to free herself from financial dependence on her father. The work was difficult, the hours were incredibly long. She saw shattered and hopeless lives around her. There was no possibility for freedom in this type of life, she thought.
A chance presented itself. Her older sister Helene had decided to immigrate to the United States. Emma enthusiastically joined her. This is not an exceptional story. A young Russian, Jewish woman is in search of freedom; she is tired of being directed by her family; she is creative, intellectual, and sees no options open for her; moreover, the broader social picture is bleak; the government is becoming ever-more oppressive, sending thousands of dissidents to prisons in Siberia; violence against Jews is on the rise everywhere, violence perpetrated by both government authorities and by armed groups of vigilantes like the Black Hundreds, groups independent of but connected to official structures of power, like the KKK in the United States.
Emma Goldman and her sister Helene embarked on their journey with hopes for a better life in the United States. This, like Goldmanʼs experience as a young woman in Russia, was nothing exceptional. She was like any one of the millions of people who sought increased opportunity on the other side of the Atlantic. Added to this, however, was her strong rejection or even hostility to the actions, behaviors, structures of institutions of power. The sisters began their life in the United States in the rapidly growing industrial city of Rochester, New York. Emma took a job sewing clothing in a factory for two and a half dollars per week. As in Russia, the laboring hours were incredibly long, the manual sewing machines required constant pedaling, a task that after ten or twelve hours became extremely painful. The atmosphere in the factory was difficult for Emma, for unlike in Russia where workers formed a community, the workers in the Rochester clothing factory were forbidden to socialize with each other. It would, the managers thought, cut into their productivity.
Goldman, like so many first generations immigrants, was experiencing crushing disappointment in the United States. Her sensitivity to the brute power of authority was high. She was witnessing around her the debasing character of industrial labor and the oppressive power of not only the government and the police, but the factory foreman, the manager, and the factory owner. Unlike in Russia where all power theoretically stemmed from the tsar, in America, he witnessed, power attacked individual laborers from all sides.
A decisive series of events took place in 1886 that altered people’s perspectives on the United Statesʼ government. In Chicago, workers had gone on strike to protest conditions in the McCormick Harvester Company. Police were called in and brutally put down the strike. The next day, a protest gathered on Chicagoʼs Haymarket Square. When the police tried to break up the demonstration, someone threw a bomb and killed one of the officers. The police responded by arresting leaders of the labor movement and putting them on trial. On doctored and specious evidence, labor leaders, socialists, and anarchists were convicted. In 1887, four of them were put to death.