Paul Anderson, review of Stalin’s British Victims by Francis Beckett (Sutton, £20), Tribune, July 9 2004
Harold Evans, the legendary former editor of the Sunday Times and The Times, is famous for many things, but for journalists of my generation he will always be primarily remembered as the author of a series of “how-to” books on the crafts of journalism. I still can’t get out of my head his injunction to would-be reporters (I think adapted from Beaverbrook or Northcliffe): “Always, always, always, tell the story through people.”
I was reminded of it again this week as I read a fascinating book by Francis Beckett, Stalin’s British Victims, which, as the introduction puts it, “tells the stories of four remarkable British women whose lives were scorched by Stalin’s purges”.
Beckett is a veteran left-wing journalist whose by-line will be familiar to Tribune readers, but in recent years he has also carved out something of a niche for himself as a popular historian.
In 1995, he published a marvellously racy account of the rise and fall of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Enemy Within. Four years later came a biography of his father John Beckett, a Left-wing Labour MP in the 1920s who became Oswald Mosley’s propaganda chief and a vocal supporter of Nazism.
Stalin’s British Victims is a by-product of his research for his history of the Communist Party. While writing that book, Beckett came across the cases of Rose Cohen and Rosa Rust. Rose Cohen was a bright young middle-class London Jewish woman who joined the CP at its foundation, married the leading Bolshevik sent by Lenin to sort out the fledgling British party, moved to Moscow and spent more than a decade there as a propagandist for the communist regime before being arrested in 1937 and shot.
Rosa Rust was the daughter of William Rust, a prominent British communist (best known as editor of the Daily Worker, precursor of the Morning Star) who — to cut a very long and complex story short — abandoned her as a girl in the Soviet Union. She nearly died as a slave labourer in wartime Kazakhstan before being rescued and sent back to Britain.
Neither woman’s story was exactly secret. Rose Cohen’s arrest had been reported at the time, and by 1956 it was clear at least to her friends — among them Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the CP, who had been a long-time admirer — that she had perished. Rosa Rust’s extraordinary tale was also known to the British communist leaders. What Beckett found disturbing and fascinating, however, was the extent to which Pollitt and the rest of the British communist leadership kept completely quiet about what they knew and did their utmost to draw a veil over the women’s stories.
Beckett started digging, tracking down Rosa Rust in Redcar and Rose Cohen’s niece in London and searching through archives in Britain and Russia — and in the process discovered two other extraordinary stories of British women caught up in the madness of the purges, Freda Utley and Pearl Rimel, both of whom “saw their husbands taken away to the gulag and had to spirit their small children out of the country”. Utley, a journalist who became a prominent anti-communist polemicist in cold-war America, told her own story in a memoir published in the late 1940s but long forgotten. Rimel’s harrowing tale was unearthed by her husband’s great-nephew, a Dutch journalist.
The result of Beckett’s efforts is an absolutely riveting book that once and for all scotches the excuse used for years by British communists and fellow-travellers for their failure to speak out about Stalin’s terror — that they didn’t know what was going on until 1956, when Khruschev denounced Stalin in his famous “secret speech”. Pollitt, William Rust et al clearly had at very least a good idea of what Stalin was up to — and they decided to do nothing about it, in part because they felt that speaking out would damage the anti-fascist cause but also because they were intellectually and emotionally incapable of confronting the fact that the revolution in which they had invested all their hopes for the future had brought forth a totalitarian police state.
Beckett’s case studies do not constitute a comprehensive account of Stalin’s British victims — as he makes clear, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of other stories to be told — let alone an overview of the purges and the gulag. But by telling the story through people, he vividly brings home how Stalinism blighted and destroyed people’s lives — and why it still matters today.
The Guardian excerpted Stalin's British Victims a couple of weeks ago: click here