Stalin’s British Victims
Francis Beckett, Stalin’s British Victims, Sutton Publishing, Thrupp, 2005, pp256, £20
THIS is a short book. Almost any country could produce a longer list of young enthusiasts who fell foul of Stalin. But, by concentrating on the lives of four women, Francis Beckett has given us, in close, warm, intimate detail, the reality of that suffering.
They look out at us from the dust jacket — four young faces, full of naive confidence in justice and fair play. (Even Rosa Rust, who was brought up in Russia, had that; otherwise she would not have dared to argue with a militiaman in uniform.) Also on the dust jacket is a blurred picture of slave labourers on the White Sea Canal. There the extreme cold, the futility of hacking with hand-tools at frozen soil, are remote from our experience; they cannot move us as those four faces do.
Rose Cohen, Pearla Rimel and Freda Utley were not much older than myself. Their faces are full of the hope that so many of us had in the 1930s — that humanity had at last found a found a way forward, out of the cruelty and injustice of capitalism, and was rebuilding at least one country on socialist lines. They went to the Soviet Union to help in that rebuilding. (In 1988, when I was 19, I was about to visit the Soviet Union. The imminence of war prevented that journey. Otherwise I might have been a character in this book.)
The fourth woman on the cover, Rosa Rust, did not choose to go to Russia. She was taken there by her communist parents. But she, too, had her illusions. Brought up to love and trust the Soviet state at the outbreak of war, she believed what the radio told her. The Soviet Army would at once make mincemeat of Hitler’s forces…
Her life after that was hard, but it is the least tragic of those recounted here. After nearly starving to death and coming through the terrible wartime journey from Murmansk, she settled down in England with a loving husband, and had four children. Her sudden death six years ago came after she had told her story at length, first to me and then to Francis Beckett.
The other three women had to live long, agonising days of not knowing whether their husbands were dead or alive. Rose Cohen had the suspense cut short by being shot. Pearl Rimel — still a beautiful woman when I met her, in her forties — never quite gave up the hope that her beloved George would walk through the door. Freda Utley seems to have taken a more realistic view.
These women were not the only British victims. Francis Beckett has discovered some completely new to me. The earliest seems to have been the 22-year-old Abraham Landau, sent by the Communist Party of Great Britain to work for the Communist Youth International in Moscow. He was arrested in his room at the Lux Hotel in Moscow and shot two weeks later. Two weeks? What was Lenin’s hurry? Lenin’s, not Stalin’s — this happened at the beginning of 1923.
Stalin’s first British victim may have been William Wheldon, who was arrested in 1927, and is thought to have been executed in the same year. He was the brother-in-law of Arthur McManus, a British communist leader so highly regarded in Moscow that, after he died in 1928, his ashes were embedded in the walls of the Kremlin. If he made any effort to save his brother-in-law, no record of it has yet come to light.
Patrick Breslin died in a slave labour camp in Kazan in 1941. George Hanna was arrested in the late 1940s and released in 1967. (So, for most of his time in the Gulag, he was not Stalin’s prisoner, but Khrushchev’s.)
Some British people who became part of the communist establishment did time in Soviet jails, but said little or nothing about their experiences. One, whom I knew in his old age, was the man who moved the expulsion of Trotsky from the Communist International, JT Murphy. He was living in Moscow in the 1920s and working for the Profintern, a long-forgotten organisation which attempted to set up ‘red’ trade unions everywhere, in opposition to the existing trade unions. What, I asked, had he thought when he found himself inside?
Murphy’s answer was remarkable. He did not admit to thinking that it had been a mistake to come to Moscow. No; his mistake was to work for a trade union organisation. Trade unions had no political influence in Russia. In future he would work for the Communist International.
We are talking about the 1920s, not the 1930s. The authorities admitted they had no case against Murphy, and released him. He did in fact work inside the Communist International; he became the British delegate there. That was how he came to be moving the expulsion of Trotsky. His own expulsion took place after he had returned to England and could no longer be carted off to the Gulag. He enjoyed a comfortable old age, much of it spent in colourful reminiscence.
Being British was some protection for some of Stalin’s victims. How slowly and reluctantly the Foreign Office intervened in the case of Rose Cohen is shown in this book. But Britain did accept responsibility for the repatriation of Rosa Rust. Freda Utley was able to return to London with her two-year-old son.
People from fascist countries had nowhere to turn for protection. Rosa Rust’s mother lived with a German communist in Moscow. One night the secret police came for him. Like thousands of other German refugees, he was never seen again. Those who were seen again, such as Ernst Fischer, have written books available in English. Less well known here are the sufferings of the Italian refugees. One of them, Dante Corneli, reached his native town, Tivoli, years after everyone had given him up for dead. The local communist boss turned up to tell him the good news. His expulsion from the party had been rescinded.
Corneli told the man to get lost. He spent his old age on a wonderful job of research. Almost single-handed, with no resources but a small state pension, he tracked down his Italian companions in the Gulag, and established what had happened to a great many of them. The results of his labours filled several volumes. I have read Corneli’s work in Italian; so far as I can discover, it has never been translated.
People in the English-speaking countries take very little interest in the fate of those who, it is generally felt, should have known better. Why did they ever put themselves into Stalin’s power?
This attitude may hamper the sales of Francis Beckett’s excellent work. I hope I am wrong about this, and that it will be reprinted. If it is, he should correct a few errors. Camberwell, where Bill Rust was born, is not in the East End. The Spanish Civil War did not break out until 1936, and could have had no place in people’s decisions in 1931. He has put Stalingrad in the wrong place. And I am 10 years younger than he thinks; I wrote The Death of Uncle Joe in my seventies, not my eighties.