With What Joy We Write of the New Russian Government

Ferdinand Mount

  • The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers
    Faber, 390 pp, £20.00, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 22261 2

‘Ransome, when he turned up, proved to be an amiable and attractive man, with a luxuriant blond soup-strainer moustache, a rubicund complexion, a large mouth from which more often than not a pipe protruded, and a hearty disposition.’ Malcolm Muggeridge immediately took to Arthur Ransome when he first met him in Cairo in 1929. Most people did. The philosopher R.G. Collingwood, a close friend from their shared childhood in the Lake District, gave Ransome his entire life savings to pay his legal costs when he was sued by the incurably litigious Lord Alfred Douglas. Edward Thomas was devoted to him. John Masefield drank claret with him at teatime as they sang sea shanties together in Ransome’s mother’s kitchen.

And Ransome took to most people; he was not choosy. In fact, he was inclined to instant and lasting hero worship from which nothing could shift him, for he also had a stubborn conviction of his own rightness. His innocent egotism was underpinned by the belief that he was an excellent fellow who could do no wrong. These were dangerous qualities which in combination drew him into a career so bizarre that now, as during his long lifetime (1884-1967), it takes your breath away.

For years, Ransome’s place as the pipe-sucking deity of children’s literature seemed unassailable. The latest adventures of John, Susan, Titty and Roger could safely be placed in the hands of the most impressionable child, and placed they were by wholesome parents every Christmas holidays between 1930 and 1943: Swallows and Amazons, Coot Club, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, every one a bestseller to be avoided with horror and loathing by any young person with the slightest vestige of humour or subversion. It is not just that the Fearsome Foursome live in a world of nannies and apple-cheeked farmers’ wives filling their milk-cans and calling them Miss Susan and Miss Titty (not an appellation which most farmers’ wives today could manage without corpsing). That, after all, is standard for children’s fiction of the period. It is their unspeakable goodness, their unflagging enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits, their intolerable expertise in handling boats and their never, ever being cross or bored. When Susan has a spare moment, she improves it by scouring the dishes again or by sewing buttons back on her younger brother’s shirt. Her elder brother, John, meanwhile practises tying some of the knots in The Seaman’s Handybook. In Arthur Ransome’s Lake District (and his Norfolk Broads), there are no wasps or midges, it hardly ever rains and no boat capsizes. One longs for them all to be deported to the island in Lord of the Flies, if not actually to share the fate of Simon and Piggy. In fact, of course, they sail home to a scrumptious tea with Mother. It’s hard to imagine that a grown man whose life’s ambition it was to be a great writer could have brought himself to turn out 300 pages of this stuff, let alone 3000.

Yet there was also a very different Arthur Ransome, a ruthless and tireless propagandist for the Bolsheviks and their Revolution, a double agent courted simultaneously by Lenin and Lord Curzon, a man whose total lack of qualm or scruple baffled the spymasters of East and West alike. This other Ransome was, I think, first brought to public attention by David Caute in The Fellow Travellers (1973), then by Hugh Brogan in his 1984 biography, more recently in papers declassified by MI5 in 2005, and now by Roland Chambers in this new biography.

It should be said at once that the bulk of the evidence was never secret, being set out in Ransome’s own articles for the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian (his early stuff was often reprinted in the New York Times as well), and in his pro-Soviet pamphlets, On Behalf of Russia (1918), Six Weeks in Russia (1919) and The Crisis in Russia (1921), and only half covered up in his autobiography, which was in any case published posthumously in 1976. It is Ransome who leads off Caute’s parade of useful idiots on the first page of his first chapter.

Chambers tells essentially the same story as Brogan, though his emphasis is different. The bulk of his pages concentrate on Ransome’s adventures in Russia and the Baltic, with his career as a children’s writer tacked on, rather perfunctorily, at the end. He declares candidly that when, at the age of 45, Ransome began writing the books for which he is now remembered, ‘the most interesting episode of his life, from a biographer’s point of view, was already over.’ Brogan presents a more rounded picture, and his touch is surer. Chambers is shaky on the minutiae, getting in a tangle, for example, about the names and titles of Foreign Office staff, lurching between Lord Cecil and Sir Robert Cecil for Lord Robert Cecil, Sir Esmie instead of Esme Howard, and Sir Cavendish Bentinck for Victor Cavendish-Bentinck. More seriously, Muggeridge is described as ‘an enthusiastic apologist for Stalin’, when in reality he had not been in Russia three months before he was writing to tell Beatrice Webb, his wife’s aunt, of his ‘overwhelming conviction that the government and all it stands for . . . is evil and a denial of everything I care for in life’. Chambers also has an occasional weakness for the cliché: ‘In 1914, Serbia stood in relation to the great powers of Europe very much like a match next to a barrel packed with gunpowder.’ And if the book had source notes and a better index, it would be easier to be clear who said what and when. All the same, Chambers tells the story with verve and a stylish deadpan manner when recounting Ransome’s more amazing excursions and effusions. It is a story not to be missed.

Ransome went to Russia in the first place to get away from his wife, Ivy. He hated Ivy with an unrelenting venom, later describing her as ‘an incarnate devil and nothing else’. Not everyone agreed. Ivy deeply admired her husband and helped him with his work, as well as keeping the household going while he disappeared to go on long walks or visit his friends. Of the two of them, Edward Thomas’s wife, Helen, greatly preferred Ivy and thought that Arthur was turning into an intolerable Superman. Arthur refused to see their only child, Tabitha, throughout her adolescence and never met her children at all, except when Tabitha tricked him into coming to see her in Somerset and introduced him to his granddaughter Hazel, by then aged 18. Ransome was enraged by this stratagem and stormed off to Taunton station, refusing Tabitha’s offer of a lift. He did have a substitute family in the shape of the real-life Susan, Titty etc, the children of Collingwood’s sister Dora, but in old age he turned against them too. There were decided limits to his family affections.

But his political affections were unbounded. He had a front-row seat at the February Revolution, watching the siege of Litovsky Castle from his office desk. He was never short of courage, visited the Eastern Front three times and came under fire while surveying the battlefield from a Russian biplane. Like many other foreign observers, he welcomed the fall of the tsar: ‘It is impossible for people who have not lived here to know with what joy we write of the new Russian Government.’ Kerensky was his first Russian hero: ‘Then, as on a dozen other occasions, Mr Kerensky saved the situation.’ Ransome was at the Finland Station to see Lenin’s return; and soon he had a new hero. Lenin was Russia’s Oliver Cromwell, a modest, simple man; every line on his face was ‘a line of laughter’. Two years later, Ransome reflected in Six Weeks in Russia: ‘Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had had a similar joyous temperament . . . I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition.’

During the October Revolution, Ransome was back in England, fishing and making a half-hearted effort to patch things up with Ivy. He returned to Russia in time to see the Bolsheviks dissolve the elected Constituent Assembly, a spectacle which moved him to write: ‘I tell you I walk these abominable, unswept, mountainously dirt-clogged, snow-clogged streets in exultation. It is like walking on Wetherlam or Dew Crags, with the future of mankind spreading before one like the foothills of the Lake Country.’ As soon as Lenin looked like winning, Ransome abandoned Kerensky and parliamentary democracy without a backward glance. The suppression of the Assembly was not simply a regrettable necessity, it was a glorious moment in history. As he listened to the exposition of his other new hero, Trotsky, ‘I felt I would willingly give the rest of my life if it could be divided into minutes and given to men in England and France so that those of little faith who say that the Russian Revolution is discredited, could share for one minute each that wonderful experience.’

When Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin in August 1918, Ransome hurried to compose an obituary, describing how the common peasants worshipped Lenin as a saint. In the event, the obit was not needed. When Lenin did die in 1924, after suffering his third stroke, Ransome also composed the obit that appeared in the Guardian. Lenin had been ‘like a lighthouse shining through a fog’. It had never occurred to him that the Revolution rested in his hands alone, or that he had for one moment approved unnecessary killing in his name. Of course, other enthusiasts were to say similar things, then and later (Lincoln Steffens, the Webbs, H.G. Wells, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, Bernard Shaw), but it was Ransome who first coined those glowing phrases that lingered in the Western mind for so long. He was thus a valuable commodity, as his great friend Karl Radek, the presiding genius of the Comintern, was quick to realise. To the mercurial British agent in Moscow, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Ransome might be only an incorrigible sentimentalist, ‘a Don Quixote with a walrus moustache’, but that was just what the Bolsheviks needed: a propagandist who was not one of them but was obviously good-hearted and sincere. Ransome’s pamphlet On Behalf of Russia was written in close collaboration with Radek and was circulated by Russian agents among Allied troops. And when Lenin objected that Six Weeks in Russia failed to follow the party line, Radek pointed out that it was the ‘first thing written that had shown the Bolsheviks as human beings’.

Ransome was beautifully ignorant of the sacred texts of Marxism-Leninism. What he had instead was a narrative gift and an eye for local colour. He was one of the pioneers of the celebrity interview. How seductively he describes Trotsky’s simple furniture in his office in the Smolny Institute, marked only by a piece of paper pinned to the door with the words ‘People’s Commissary for Foreign Affairs’. From the great man’s striking head, with its high forehead and lively eyes, Ransome deduces in a flash that this is a man who will do nothing that will not best serve the revolutionary cause that is in his heart. A statuesque secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, over six foot tall in her high heels, is taking notes at this first of many interviews. Later, Ransome and Evgenia, looking for someone to stamp his telegram, find the censor nodding off over a pot of potatoes on a primus which is sending up clouds of black smoke. Evgenia and her sister Iroida invite Ransome to stay and drink tea. The whole scene is so delightfully innocent and Russian.

Ransome soon abandons his dark, chilly room at the Elite Hotel and moves into a merchant’s palace, which he shares with the Radeks and the Shelepin girls. He describes with open glee the abject terror of the millionaire who is being evicted. The amusing incident is recorded in his notebook under the title ‘Requisitioning a Flat’. Eventually, Evgenia is smuggled out of Russia to become Ransome’s second wife and spend the rest of her life making tea in the Lake District. Also smuggled out with the happy couple are 35 diamonds and three strings of pearls to be sold to fund Comintern activity in the West. Ransome denies knowledge of these items of luggage, but he is an old hand at the game. On an earlier exit, he has smuggled out three million roubles in cash for the Swedish Comintern. Iroida stays in Russia. She joins the Cheka and in 1926 is promoted to deputy director of the Moscow region forced labour camp. She continues at this exacting post in a busy part of the Gulag until the early 1930s.

We must not think that Ransome, as a foreign correspondent, was somehow shielded from the grim realities. On the contrary, his matchless contacts gave him access to the worst horrors. Besides, he was an energetic reporter who always wanted to see for himself. He saw, for example, in company with Yakov Peters, No. 2 at the Cheka, the ghastly aftermath of the Cheka’s massacre of the anarchists. Bruce Lockhart went on another tour with Peters’s boss, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, and wrote a horrified account of the blood and squalor. But Ransome (who as a boy in Leeds had been taught ice-skating by the exiled Prince Kropotkin) entirely approved of Dzerzhinsky’s actions: ‘The Soviet has finally shown itself capable of uprooting a movement which all previous governments have not dared to touch.’ Though keen on all the Bolshevik leaders, Ransome had an especially soft spot for Dzerzhinsky: ‘He has been much in prison [under the tsar], where he was remarkable for the urgent desire to take upon himself the unpleasant labour of other criminals, such as cleaning cells and emptying slops.’

More generally, Ransome told his readers, the situation in Russia was nowhere near as bad as it had been painted. He had anecdotes to prove that reports of the Terror in the countryside had been grossly exaggerated. Mass terror was anyway impossible in Russia, ‘because there can be no such thing unless the mass feels inclined to terrorise, which they do not.’ The dictatorship of the proletariat meant that every working man could cast his vote. As for free speech, ‘I have never met a Russian who could be prevented from saying whatever he liked whenever he liked, by any threats or dangers whatsoever.’

Ransome was useful not merely as a propagandist. For a time, he seemed to the Bolshevik leadership their best, if not their only contact with the West. When Lenin was in despair that the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk might be about to break down and leave Russia still trapped in a war that would destroy the Bolsheviks, Ransome was one of the two Westerners he telegrammed, imploring them to seek the support of their ambassadors. The other was Colonel Raymond Robins, head of the American Red Cross, best remembered for his view that Trotsky was ‘a four-kind son of a bitch, but the greatest Jew since Jesus Christ’. At one point, Lenin granted Ransome three interviews in three weeks. When Bruce Lockhart told him of the Allied plans for military intervention in Russia, Ransome went straight to Lenin, in effect to warn him.

The amazing thing is that, for the latter half of his time in the East, Ransome was also an accredited British agent, hired originally on the suggestion of the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, who had been impressed by Ransome’s article about his first meeting with Trotsky. The Foreign Office was just as desperate for any contact with the Bolsheviks as the Bolsheviks were desperate for any clue to the West’s intentions. After a time, Ransome’s activities began to arouse some misgivings, and he had several menacing interviews with Rex Leeper at the Foreign Office and the head of Special Branch, Sir Basil Thomson, who succumbed to his charm. Even those officials who were scornful of his character and suspicious of his motives mostly agreed that he should be allowed to go back to Russia. And the new foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, agreed too. Thus there could be no question of having Ransome shot for treason, as urged by Colonel Knox, the British military attaché in Russia, or even prosecuted, for he had been hired with the approval of two foreign secretaries and in the full knowledge of all his views and activities, including the smuggling.

The fatal attraction of having a man on the inside overwhelmed common prudence. In the Foreign Office, only Leeper, later to found the British Council (not the Arts Council, as Chambers has it), seemed aware of the damage that Ransome had done and could continue to do as a soft propagandist. And even the sceptical Leeper comforted himself by arguing that ‘Mr Ransome is not an agent of the Bolsheviks. He had not enough sense to see through them.’ The British chargé in Russia, Sir Francis Lindley, exploded: ‘You don’t seem to realise that these people are our enemies.’ The harm he might do seemed somehow mitigated, if not excused, because he was so obviously thick.

Chambers seems equally baffled. At the end of the book, he can’t make up his mind whether his subject was a double agent, or a peace broker, or merely one of Lenin’s useful idiots. But surely the answer is that he was all three. The illusion is to imagine that in order to be effective an agent must be (a) secret and (b) intelligent; and that a double agent must be twice as secret and twice as intelligent. Ransome was both dense and transparent; everyone always knew what he was up to and assumed that because he was so stupid his activities could be turned to their own advantage. At times, he reminds me forcibly of William Boot in Scoop, the innocent countryside writer who is pitched into bewildering and horrible events in a very strange country. Ransome’s early works, after all, included Pond and Stream and Highways and Byways in Fairyland, quite a match for Boot’s Lush Places.

But few people reckoned with Ransome’s remarkable energy and ingenuity where his own self-preservation was concerned. He could charm his way out of any tight corner. He also reminds me at times of P.G. Wodehouse’s antihero, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, with his pince-nez made of ginger-beer wire, his untidy clothes and his utter lack of scruple. Like Ukridge, Ransome’s schemes invariably went wrong but he always bobs back up again.

An essential part of his survival kit was his total lack of self-questioning, either about his double role or about his shifting allegiances within Russian politics, at first an enthusiast for democracy and the Constituent Assembly, then an ardent apologist for Lenin and the Red Terror. Nor did he ever admit to any disappointment that the Revolution had not lived up to the original high hopes. Even after Lenin’s death, he seems to have suffered few doubts about later events, as one by one his old friends – Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek and eventually Trotsky – were shot or beaten to death. On his last visit to Russia in 1928, he covered Stalin’s first purges and found them regrettable but necessary, grumbling only that the members of the Central Committee were now a bit too rough for his liking.

Looking back, he claimed to have associated with the Bolsheviks in much the same way as he had once associated with artists in Paris: ‘not as a rival painter but as a mere writer who was very much interested in what they were doing’. He was at least an artist in whitewash. Were the last 40 years of his life a prolonged lying-low, in which he could hope to forget the terrible events he had witnessed and suppressed – and hope that other people would forget too? Or were they simply a return to the Boot Magna he should never have left? Perhaps a bit of both. Certainly, his rehab was a slow business. He remained on the Home Office blacklist of suspected Bolshevik activists until 1937. He had to wait another 20 years for his CBE.