Red century. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, can a phoenix rise from the ash heap of history?
After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, the Soviet state became a beacon of hope for the left, and Moscow a place for pilgrimage. It was four decades before the magic faded, and the world is still waiting for something to replace it.
It’s easy to see the original appeal. In 1917, men were dying like flies on the blood-soaked fields of France and Belgium. Many of them were working men who made the ultimate sacrifice for countries where they could not vote, and whose deaths left their families in penury while the rich got richer.
So Vladimir Lenin’s message found willing listeners. Communist parties formed quickly in the nations that had fought the war. A young boilermaker named Harry Pollitt, later to become Britain’s Communist leader, summed up the reason: “Workers like me and all those around me had won power, had defeated the boss class.”
People like Pollitt loved the Soviet state even more when the rich and powerful attacked it in extravagant terms: “Eastward, also prostrate, also in dire confusion, lay the huge mass of Russia — not a wounded Russia only, but an infected Russia, a plague-bearing Russia,” declared Winston Churchill, who regarded such revolutionary ideas as “political doctrines which destroyed the health and even the soul of nations.”
The international friends of the Soviet state were numerous and active enough for Lenin to harbor hopes of states based on the Soviet model all over the world. So he created the Communist International, or Comintern as it was known, and took a personal interest in the formation and development of revolutionary socialist parties everywhere, including the Communist Party U.S.A., formed around 1919, the British and French Communist Parties the following year, and many others.
Moscow became a mecca for foreign Communists: a place of refuge when danger loomed, a place to find inspiration, support and finance. In 1926, the International Lenin School was set up in Moscow to train foreign Communists. According to one study, 370 Germans and 320 Czechs studied there in the 12 years of its existence, as did more than 200 apiece from France, Poland, Italy, the United States and China, and over 100 each from Austria, Britain, Spain and Finland.
Lenin School students and visiting foreign Communist leaders stayed in the Hotel Lux, a bare but functional building in the city center. There, they ate, slept and imbibed the intoxicating revolutionary fervor — literally, in the form of Russian vodka and strong Georgian brandy.
Comintern agents were sent all over the world, but they tended not to last long. Once their activities were discovered by the police, they were sent back to Russia or to prison. In Britain, the only agent of consequence who evaded the police for any length of time was Max Petrovsky, Moscow’s envoy to the British and French Communist Parties from 1924 to 1929.
He was born either David Lipetz or Max Goldfarb, and either in Ukraine or Russia, around 1883. Reliable details are scant because he lived his adult life under a series of false names: first, to avoid czarist police as a member of the Jewish Socialist Bund, then to avoid the American authorities in the years immediately before the 1917 revolution, when he helped run the socialist newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward in the United States.
In Britain, under the assumed name of Bennett (or Bennet), he spoke with the authority of Moscow. According to Ivy Litvinov, the British-born wife of a Soviet diplomat named Maxim Litvinov, Petrovsky was “the ugliest man you ever saw, but very charming.”
Around the time he arrived in London, in 1920, another Comintern agent named Rose Cohen returned to Britain, after traveling the world distributing party funds. She and Petrovsky fell in love. Cohen, from a poor Jewish family in London’s East End, was lively, clever, literate and hauntingly beautiful, with brown eyes and long dark hair.
Petrovsky and Cohen married and moved to Moscow around 1929, where their son Alyosha was born. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin had assumed leadership. For a time, all went well: Max had an important government job, and Rose became the foreign editor of an new English-language newspaper, The Moscow Daily News.
Their idyll collapsed in 1937. Suspected of sympathy with the exiled Leon Trotsky, Petrovsky and Cohen were arrested. Alyosha was sent to an orphanage and never saw his parents again. They were soon shot.
Because of Stalin’s purges, it was getting very hard to see Moscow as a beacon of hope rather than as a cruel oppressor. Yet many still managed to do so, for the world looked bleak in 1937. Hitler ran Germany, Mussolini ruled Italy, and the fascists were winning the civil war in Spain. In Britain and America, the Depression, with all the human misery it caused, looked to dedicated Communists like the final death throes of capitalism.
As Harry Pollitt saw it, those who had defeated tyranny in Russia “could never do, nor ever can do, any wrong against the working class.” Pollitt had counted Petrovsky and Cohen among his friends, but mistakes are made, he thought. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.
So the agents of the Comintern and loyal comrades like the graduates of the International Lenin School learned to hunt down Trotskyists and anarchists, and to think only of the brave new world that was to follow all this misery.
The French Communist leader André Marty went to Spain as a political officer in the International Brigades. There, he coldly ordered men to be shot for alleged Trotskyist sympathies. Marty and others called those they executed “enemies of the people,” a term that has found a newly chilling resonance today.
Marty is unforgettably portrayed in Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (disguised in some editions as Massart): “So many men had cursed him at the end. He was always genuinely sorry for them as human beings. He always told himself that and it was one of the last true ideas that was left to him that had ever been his own.”
The Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov knew some of the Soviet Union’s darkest secrets. Sentenced to death in 1923 for political activities in his homeland, he escaped to Yugoslavia, then settled in Germany. There, in 1933, he was arrested by the Nazis for alleged complicity in the Reichstag fire, which Hitler used as a pretext to suspend parliamentary government. With extraordinary courage in the circumstances, Dimitrov chose to represent himself at trial.
“I am defending myself, an accused Communist,” he said from the dock. “I am defending my political honor, my honor as a revolutionary. I am defending my Communist ideology, my ideals.”
He was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence, and moved to Paris, then Moscow. A hero there, he was appointed secretary of the Comintern in 1935. In 1944, he returned to Bulgaria after two decades in exile to lead its Communist Party. In 1946, he became his country’s prime minister.
Dimitrov, like Marty, was no sordid careerist, scrambling to power over the dead bodies of innocent people. He thought the great prize was worth the hardship and injustice along the way.
Communist parties thrived during World War II thanks to the alliance against fascism. When Stalin dissolved the Comintern in 1943, foreign Communist parties seemed on the verge of a new era, when they would act independently, make their own decisions and no longer be instruments of Soviet foreign policy. But once the war was over, Stalin reasserted his control.
In 1947, he created the Communist Information Bureau, or Cominform, to transmit Moscow’s decisions to Communist parties worldwide. In the case of the British party, Stalin personally intervened in the drafting of its postwar manifesto.
The difference between the Comintern and the Cominform was that the Cominform merely transmitted decisions. There was no longer any pretense that anyone outside the Kremlin participated in making them. The new agency’s first test came in 1948, when Moscow decided that Yugoslavia’s independent-minded leader, Marshal Tito, was no longer a heroic Communist leader but a traitor. Foreign Communist parties quickly adopted the new line.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev prevailed in the succession struggle. In a secret session of the 1956 Party Congress — secret in that reporters and foreign Communists were excluded — Khrushchev laid bare the terror that Stalin had inflicted on the Soviet Union over three decades.
Finally, the light of Moscow’s beacon went out. The new generation could not now produce people like Pollitt, Dimitrov, Petrovsky and Cohen, who would loyally risk all for what they believed was a great and just cause. To be sure, Communist parties around the world kept the allegiance of many hard-liners and still recruited some young idealists, but 1956 was a turning point, and the Soviet Union as an idea was irretrievably tainted. Thereafter, Communists were as likely to define themselves as against Moscow as for it.
Francis Beckett is the author of Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party and Stalin’s British Victims.