He was born in the Voronezh district of Central Russia, where both his parents were doctors, and after finishing college there he went to Saint Petersburg to study jurisprudence. In 1904 he left the university, joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and became involved in the revolutionary labor movement. He was engaged in cultural and educational activity among the workers of the city when he met Father Gapon and joined his petition movement; on Bloody Sunday (1905) he was with a group that was turned back by soldiers before it could reach the Winter Palace. During the ensuing strikes he took the lead in creating the first St. Petersburg Soviet in order to coordinate aid and information for the workers; although quiescent much of the year and finally suppressed in December after the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Soviet was revived during the February Revolution of 1917.
He took part in the Russian Civil War, at first in the Ukrainian anarchist organization Nabat, then (from August 1919) in the army of Nestor Makhno. Arrested by the Bolsheviks in January 1920, he was released from prison along with other anarchists in October because of a treaty between the Soviet Union and Makhno's army. Rearrested a month later, he joined the Taganka Prison hunger strike. Thanks to the intervention of the Red Trade Union International, during its Congress Съезд Красного Профинтерна) held in Moscow in the summer of 1921, he was finally expelled from the country.
Admitted to Germany despite lack of proper documents, he and his family lived in Berlin, where he wrote (in German) an 80-page pamphlet called The Persecution of the Anarchists in Soviet Russia, translated Peter Arshinov's История махновского движения (History of the Makhnovist Movement) and wrote a long biographical preface for it, and edited a Russian anarchist magazine. After two years he received an invitation from Sébastien Faure to help him prepare the Encyclopédie Anarchiste, so he moved to Paris, where he wrote for the Encyclopédie and other publications.
The death of his wife affected him severely, and World War II forced him to move from one hiding place to another; he returned to Paris after the war, but developed incurable tuberculosis and died in a hospital in September 1945, leaving his account of his experiences in the revolutions and civil war, La Révolution inconnue (The Unknown Revolution), to be published posthumously.