Stalin’s Irish victims

Issue: 115

Paul O’Brien

Barry McLoughlin, Left to the Wolves: Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror (Irish Academic Press, 2007), £20

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union access to the Soviet archives has allowed historians to reconstruct the political and personal history of many of those who perished during Joseph Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and 1940s. As the Russian Revolution degenerated, Stalin and his supporters waged a relentless internal war against anyone who showed the slightest sign of disloyalty.

Up until Stalin’s death in 1953 the Soviet secret police sentenced over four million people for political crimes against the state. Over 800,000 were shot and millions died in the slave camps of the gulag system. Stalin -reputedly remarked to Winston Churchill, “One victim is a tragedy; a million are a statistic.” The enormity of the terror is difficult to comprehend: individuals were reduced to statistics, their political and personal history apparently lost forever.

Left to the Wolves is based on painstaking research in the Moscow archives. Part history, part biography, it reads in places like a John le Carré spy novel. Barry McLoughlin reconstructs the story of three Irish socialists, detailing their formative years in the Irish and British socialist movement through to their deaths in Stalin’s gulag, and interweaves the drama of their lives with the drama of this unfolding maelstrom. Their lives and political activity crisscrossed Europe and touched on many of the major events of the century. McLoughlin wonderfully evokes the texture of the social and cultural relations of the period and provides a fascinating insight into the world of international revolutionaries, Comintern agents, and the expatriate community in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. By personalising the narrative, McLoughlin makes it more understandable. He has provided a micro‑history not only of the important events in Soviet and Irish history, but also of the political history of Europe in the 20th century.

Pat Breslin was one of 20 Irish delegates, sent as students to the International Lenin School (ILS) in Moscow in 1928. The primary function of the ILS was transforming revolutionaries into party functionaries, who on their return home would implement the “Soviet line”. Breslin’s experience of surveillance and denunciation during his time at the ILS quickly turned to disillusionment with Stalin’s Russia. He was expelled from the ILS, but asked to stay in Moscow to be with his pregnant wife. He worked as a journalist on the Moscow Daily News, which catered mainly for foreign residents in the Soviet Union. But by 1937 foreigners were seen as prospective fifth columnists and the need for newspapers to cater for their interests belonged to the past. Foreigners were pressurised to abandon their native citizenship for the scarlet passport of the USSR, and when Breslin surrendered his Irish citizenship and applied for a Soviet passport in 1936 his chances of returning to Ireland were severely diminished.

Breslin was arrested in 1940 and charged with having a “hostile attitude” to Soviet power. Confession became everything—a legal justification for the mass arrests and a popular justification for the terror in the USSR as well as in the West. But to sign a confession was in effect a death warrant. Breslin was interrogated over a seven month period and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. He lasted less than a month in the gulag before dying as a result of the torture and deprivation. McLoughlin’s account of his interrogation, including a list of questions and answers from his extensive file, makes grim and compulsive reading.

Brian Goold-Verschoyle came from an upper class Anglo-Irish family and, in the tradition of the Cambridge spies, joined the Communist Party in the 1920s. He was recruited by the Soviet intelligence agency, trained as a radio operator in Moscow and returned to Britain. There he became active in one of the many Soviet spy rings. He was sent to Spain following the outbreak of the civil war and worked as a radio technician in Barcelona.

Goold-Verschoyle quickly realised the Stalinists had no real interest in a mass revolutionary movement that was potentially independent of Moscow. His letters home reveal a growing sympathy for the Socialist Party and the Trotskyist-influenced Poum. In April 1937 he was asked to report to Barcelona harbour to repair a ship’s radio. When he embarked he was escorted to the radio cabin and the door was locked behind him. He had in effect been kidnapped and when the ship arrived in Russia he was immediately transferred to the Lubianka prison in Moscow. He was sentenced to eight years for -counter‑revolutionary Trotskyist activities and died in confinement in 1942.

Sean McAteer worked as a docker in Dublin and was a member of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. He emigrated to America and became an activist with the Industrial Workers of the World. On his return to Ireland he joined the Communist Party and in January 1922, along with writer Liam O’Flaherty, he was part of a group that occupied the Rotunda in Dublin and declared a “Soviet Republic”. The soviet, which lasted only a matter of days, was one of many factory occupations in the period immediately after Irish independence, inspired by the Russian Revolution, that hoisted the red flag. Fearing arrest during the Irish Civil War he went to Liverpool and during a raid on a post office to raise funds for the Republican movement a man was shot.

Once more McAteer was forced to flee, and with the assistance of Elena Stasova, Lenin’s former secretary, who in December 1922 had set up the International Red Help organisation to assist revolutionaries all over the world, he made his way to Russia. He worked as a propagandist, recruiting foreign sailors in the Seamen’s Club in Odessa. In 1927 he was sent to China as an agent of the Comintern and after the collapse of the Chinese revolution he returned to his old job in Odessa. The murder of Kirov in December 1934 unleashed a purge of foreign Communists. McAteer was arrested and shot as a spy in 1937. The Soviet Red Cross later informed Jim Larkin’s son that he had disappeared during the Nazi occupation of Odessa.

Left to the Wolves is a fascinating read that takes us inside the terror with a cast of revolutionaries, spies and informers, which straddled the international movement. McLoughlin is good at describing the process of the terror—the numbers, the organisation, the minute details of the interrogation and the confessions extracted from the men. But he has no political explanation as to why it happened. He is forced to rely on irrational explanations: Stalin was paranoid, the Bolsheviks were “hard men”, or the party functionaries failed to carry out the plan. McLoughlin throws up a mass of information but the analysis fails to identify the key issues in Soviet history. He has no sense of the degeneration of the revolution, the -counter‑revolutionary nature of Stalinism and the theory of “socialism in one country”. There is no sense of a new class society emerging.

There were real threats to Stalin’s power in the mid-1930s; the old Bolsheviks who had led the revolution in 1917 were increasingly dissatisfied with Stalin’s leadership, and sections of the army who had served with Trotsky during the Civil War in the early 1920s posed a real challenge. Foreign revolutionaries who had sought sanctuary in the USSR were particularly vulnerable, as the regime feared that they might have been influenced by Trotskyist ideas. All of these elements had to be liquidated if the new social order was to consolidate its position.

The three men McLoughlin describes deserved more. They were not friends or acquaintances; all they shared was their Irish nationality and their belief in the Soviet Union as a haven from prosecution and their belief that it was the heartland of world revolution. They were minor figures in the Communist movement, but McLoughlin has forensically pieced together their involvement in the movement and their confidence in the future. They found a new class society emerging from the destruction of the revolution. Their disillusionment with the USSR led to their arrest, transportation and death.