Arthur Ransome and the Bolshevik Revolution

Part 2

By Dave Hyland
27 June 2011

This is the second in a three-part consideration of the English author Arthur Ransome, particularly as regards his relationship to the October 1917 revolution in Russia. Part 1 was published June 25.

By the time he left for Russia in 1913, Ransome was already an up-and-coming literary critic with many essays behind him and three published books. The second and third, on Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, were being translated into French and Russian.

According to one biographer, his book on Poe “received better reviews than its author thought it deserved” (Brogan, 1984, p. 69).

His own modest claim for the book was, “It had at least considered theories and his self-conscious technique in writing stories… it had also, for the first time, given a detailed account of the strange position, almost that of a French writer, that Poe had won in France” (ibid).

Ransome had something original to say and he wanted his next book to be on Hazlitt, but his publishers, Methuen, didn’t believe this was a commercial proposition. Instead, his next book was a critical essay on the work of Oscar Wilde.

As soon as it was published in 1913, Ransome was drawn into controversy—first over objections from friends of Wilde’s wife to its depiction of her. Then he was sued for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s former lover. The reading out in court of sections of Wilde’s De Profundis, his devastating exposure of the younger man’s character, totally destroyed Douglas’s case.

But even though he had won, Ransome still insisted the publishers remove the offending passages from his book. Though the book once again received warm support from reviewers, the whole matter left him bruised and with a deep dislike of public controversy and publicity. It was also to accentuate his health problems. He was due to write a fourth work, on Robert Louis Stevenson, but it never happened.

The Wilde libel case was cathartic in bringing matters to a head with Ivy. In his own words, Ransome “escaped” to St Petersburg, where he was able to continue his work translating Russian children’s tales, developing his conversational Russian and concentrating on his favourite pastime, fishing.

Ransome returned to Russia twice more to complete Old Peter’s Russian Tales, The Elixir of Life and a commission to write a travel guide to Moscow. For over two months he enjoyed visiting the city’s beautiful buildings and being reunited with old friends and meeting new ones.

Among these were the Tyrkov family, the head of which, Arkady Vladimirovich Tyrkov, was the brother-in-law of one of Ransome’s friends in London. As a young student in 1881, he was one of a group of revolutionaries that planned and carried out the assassination of Alexander II. Arrested and sent to Siberia where he had married, Arkady was released after 20 years and returned home.

Experiences like these helped make Ransome a Russophile and must have played their part in developing his sympathetic attitude towards Russia.

In August 1914, this pleasant interlude was interrupted by the eruption of the First World War. Amongst the millions that were to die a horrible death were Ransome’s brother, Geoffrey, and one of his best friends, Thomas Edwards, prominent among the “war poets.” Mass strikes took place as workers faced unemployment after the armistice in 1918. These would have also shaped Ransome’s attitude to the developments in Russia and it was probably a major factor behind his determined drive to understand the genesis of the world’s first workers’ state.

Chambers tries to play down the fact that Ransome had already become a seriously respected literary figure when the war broke out. Unable to enlist because of various physical ailments, Ransome had been looking for something to do to help the British war effort. In 1915 the Petrograd correspondent for the Daily News fell ill with locomotor ataxia, (the inability to control one’s body movements). After filling in for him for a while, Ransome was asked to take the job permanently when it became clear the reporter would be unable to return. He agreed on the basis he could return home at least once a year (Ransome, 1976, p. 185).

He had never been a journalist, but a novelist, essayist and prodigious letter writer. But he could now understand and speak Russian, had contacts in the country from previous research work for his books, and cousins high up in the British civil service. It must have been something of a coup for the Daily News and exciting for its readers to have the famous author of Wilde as its Russian correspondent.

There is little doubt that when he finally left England and headed for St. Petersburg in October 1915, Ransome had every intention of doing his best in the “national interest.” The great problem for the Whitehall mandarins and the British secret service was that he was also determined to report absolutely honestly on all the events he witnessed.

Ransome was in Russia for an extended period, between 1914 and 1918, during which time he witnessed Russia suffer a number of military setbacks, the fall of the Romanov monarchy, the February revolution of 1917 and the growing opposition to Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government, a government of which he too became critical. He was back in Britain at the time of the Bolshevik-led October revolution, but returned as soon as he could to St. Petersburg, now Petrograd, on December 25, 1917.

Throughout, the British Foreign Office was desperate to know what was happening in Russia and how this would affect its war plans.

However, Ransome’s newspaper articles and his official reports became increasingly sympathetic towards the aims of the Soviet revolution and he was to establish a close personal friendship with several among the Bolshevik leadership, particularly, Karl Radek and Vatslav Vorovsky. It was while going to interview Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Revolution and leader of the Red Army, that Ransome met Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepina. An Estonian and former Menshevik, Shelepina became Ransome’s wife in 1924 and remained his companion until his death at the age of 83.

Ransome had reported on the arrest of eleven members of the central Petrograd committee of mobilised industry on February 12, 1917, accused of belonging to revolutionary parties. It was as a result of this that he was to receive a pass to attend a meeting of the Soviet of Soldiers and Workers Deputies on March 19.

He was to write later, “Chance had brought me into the Soviet of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies long before other correspondents had thought that body worth observing. From the first day they met it was obvious that the Soviets held what power there was, and that the Duma was an impotent survival. The story of 1917 is the story of the demonstration of that all-important fact” (Ransome, 1976, p. 217).

It is hardly surprising that a little while after this incident, when he was back in England, Ransome was called into the Foreign Office by Secretary Arthur Balfour, and asked to supply them with whatever information he could glean. He was not a paid spy, but he was asked to keep in touch through MI5. Hoping to ensure he could get back into the country, they gave him a diplomatic bag for delivery in Stockholm.

A few days later he was given a letter while in London by F. Rothstein, a Russian revolutionary working as a translator in the Home Office, recommending him as “the only correspondent who informed the English public of events in Russia honestly” (Brogan, 1984, p. 148).

Ransome had started out as a willing instrument of British imperialist policy in Russia, charged with finding out the Bolshevik leaders’ plans. He was soon to become a great admirer of the revolutionary struggle of the Russian working class and the intellectual vigour of its leadership.

He employed all his literary skills in trying to explain to his readers, and himself, what was happening before his astonished eyes. His articles defending the Bolsheviks not only appeared in the Daily News in Britain, but newspapers around the world, including the New York Times. As a result, he was threatened by the British authorities with being thrown in jail for Bolshevik sympathies and repeatedly had to fight against its censorship. On one occasion there was even a call in parliament for him to be arrested as a traitor under the Defence of the Realm Act.

Despite this, in the summer of 1918, he wrote The Truth about Russia, which refuted all the lies being spread by imperialist agents claiming the Bolsheviks had been paid by the German imperialists to sabotage Kerensky’s Provisional Government. He had earlier declared a “fanaticism to find truth and write about it whatever it brings me.” He wrote The Truth about Russia in close collaboration with Radek. In this work, he would have believed he was following in Hazlitt’s footsteps.

The work was written at a critical time. Anti-Bolshevik feeling in the US had been encouraged by Edgar Sisson, head of the American propaganda unit, and a spy. Films and forged letters were used to falsely claim that the Bolsheviks received funds directly from Berlin.

Written under the pressure of a tight 36-hour deadline and difficult personal conditions, the work was sent to America via a supporter, Colonel Robins, for distribution. At this time, Ransome’s articles were well known to Americans and it sought to remind them of their own revolutionary history. The fact that both the author and distributor were bourgeois liberals in outlook and politics meant their words could make a broader appeal and carried even greater resonance and authority.

It was published in July 1918 by the New Republic at three cents a copy. In September, it was issued in Russia with a preface by Radek describing Ransome as a man who ordinarily took no interest in politics, but who on this occasion had been moved to protest by his “warm heart”, his lack of “bourgeois prejudices”, and most importantly, “his love for the masses.”

In his late work Six Weeks in Russia, Ransome wrote, “I should have liked to explain what was the appeal of the revolution to men like Colonel Robins and myself, both of us men far removed in origin and upbringing from the revolutionary and socialist movements in our own countries. Of course, no one who was able, as we were able, to watch the men of the revolution at close quarters could believe for a moment that they were the mere paid agents of the very power which more than all the others represented the stronghold they had set out to destroy. We had the knowledge of the injustice being done to these men to urge us in their defence. But there was more in it than that. There was a feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution.

“There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of my own impressions, all drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of the extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow, even in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war” (Six Weeks in Russia, 1919, reprinted 2010, pp. 57-8).

From a Marxist standpoint, what Ransome correctly identified as the “creative effort” unleashed in Russia that was “hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity” was made possible by the scientific consciousness generated amongst the most advanced sections of workers through the Bolshevik party. The emergence of a proletariat, conscious of itself as a class in and for itself, is what lay behind “the extraordinary vitality” that “obstinately persists in Moscow.”

A proletarian socialist revolution had never been carried out before and Russia was a backward country encompassing a sixth of the earth’s surface. Ransome chose to leave out what he believed were secondary issues to concentrate on critical questions such as how to overcome the scarcity of steel needed to build railway tracks so that food could be brought into Moscow, or, when there is such a shortage of paper, how best to ensure the spirit of the revolution is nourished by supplying the necessary reading matter. This meant not only overtly revolutionary publications, but also the great bourgeois classics.

Ransome must have looked a somewhat incongruous figure dashing around Moscow making notes everywhere about everything: this somewhat eccentric-looking Englishman, over six feet tall in a coat down to his ankles, with a long red walrus moustache, pince-nez glasses on the end of his nose, a Red Army fur hat upon his head, often seen driving a sledge.

Although he would never completely overcome his scepticism towards a victory for the revolution, he saw Russia as a heroic first experiment in what was to be an extended historical battle. Ransome chided his fellow Englishmen for not travelling to Russia in order to examine it more closely:

“I love the real England, but I hate, more than I hate anything on earth (except cowardice in looking at the truth), the intellectual sloth, the gross mental indolence that prevents the English from making an effort of imagination and realising how shameful will be their position in history when the tale of this last year in the biography of democracy comes to be written… Shameful foolish and tragic beyond tears, for the toll will be paid in English blood. English lads will die, not one or two, hundreds of thousands, because their elders listen to men who think little things, and tell them little things, which are so terribly easy to repeat” (Six Weeks, p. 28).

Ransome attended a meeting of the Moscow Soviet and listened to Bolsheviks Maxim Litvinov and Lev Kamenev discuss together the international situation and issues needing to be addressed within Russia. After the meeting Ransome spoke to a Mr. Kuni, who told him he was President of the Chinese Soviet. As there were around a thousand Chinese in Moscow, they had the right to representation in the government of the city. Kuni also informed Ransome that there were between two and three thousand Chinese serving in the Red Army.

Ransome went from one commissar to another and conducted brief interviews with Lenin, as well as Trotsky, now leader of the Red Army. He vividly describes the joyous and unrestrained scenes that welcomed the announcement of the founding of the Third (Communist) International, in March 1919.

He thought Six Weeks might prove “too dull”, but he needn’t have worried. It is fascinating as a record of that tumultuous period in history and how working-class men and women, against all odds, set about defending their revolution.

There is an amusing piece in Ransome’s autobiography that tells us what Lenin himself felt about the work:

“I had a talk with Lenin, who told me that he had been inclined to disapprove of my ‘Six Weeks’ until he heard from Radek, who was in the Moabit prison in Berlin and had praised it for just the personalities that Lenin had thought unnecessary, saying that it was the first thing written that had shown the Bolsheviks as human beings, and that it had brought them alive and talking into his cell. None-the-less, though the book was translated into a dozen different languages it was not until 1924, that it was translated into Russian and published with an introduction by Radek himself. We had no copyright convention with Russia, but the State Publishing House presented me with the Complete Works of Lenin in lieu of royalties. (This was not quite so funny, nor so practical, as the state payment of Chaliapin for singing in the opera. They gave him a sack of flour)” (Ransome, 1976, p. 279).

It is possible that Lenin was concerned in case Six Weeks caused some friction or jealously within the Bolshevik party. It is noticeable that the name Stalin doesn’t appear anywhere.

To be continued