Who was Arthur Ransome?

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Arthur Ransome

Largely forgotten nowadays, Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) was a British author, famous in his time for a series of children’s books that, in the words of his biographer Roland Chambers, “epitomised the plain talking and simple moral values that once made the empire great” and, “with their pastoral, old-fashioned view of Britain, shaped the imagination of a generation.” Ransome also wrote biographies of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, the latter of which led to a celebrated trial at which Ransom defended himself (successfully) against a libel charge leveled by Lord Alfred Douglas.

Headshot of Russian Revolutionary political leader and author Leon Trotsky (1879 - 1940), 1930s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Leon Trotsky

But there was another chapter to Ransome’s career. It started in 1913, when he traveled to Russia thinking that it just might provide a good setting for a fairy tale or two. He ended up reporting (in turn) on World War I, on the Kerensky and Lenin revolutions, and on the Bolshevik government, whose leading figures he befriended. He even roomed with Leon Trotsky’s second-in-command – and married Trostky’s secretary.

And eventually, he became a vocal champion of pretty much everything Lenin’s government did. As Chambers puts it, Ransome “defended censorship of the press, the suppression of democracy, and even downplayed execution without trial.” When Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB), admitted that his agency was synonymous with terror, “a terror that is absolutely essential in the revolutionary period we are passing through,” Ransome stood up for that, too.

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Roland Chambers

What a piece of work! When he wasn’t comparing Lenin to Oliver Cromwell and denying the Red Terror, Ransome was praising Trotsky for “his ‘merciless’ suppression of the White Guards and other ‘bloodsucking’ counter-revolutionaries.” In his reportage, meanwhile, he was a liar on the scale of Walter Duranty, consistently reassuring British readers that the Bolsheviks were doing their best to keep bloodshed at a minimum. To quote one reviewer’s tongue-in-cheek summing-up: “Soldiers were shooting their officers, yes, but they did so with admirable restraint.”

Unsurprisingly, many British officials considered Ransome a Communist, pure and simple. But no other Brit could come close to matching his Kremlin access, and so – as shown by MI5 archives made public in 2005 – MI6 recruited him in 1918 as a spy.

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Felix Dzerzhinsky

Recently released Soviet archives have also shed light on Ransome’s story. One question that still remains, however, is whether he was actually a double agent –a man whose ultimate loyalty was not to London but to Moscow. Admittedly, there’s no absolute proof either way. But we do know that he and his wife Evgenia smuggled diamonds from the USSR to help fund the Communist movement in Western Europe. We also know he owned a lavish yacht that must have cost a bundle – more cash, certainly, than most British reporters would have been able to scrape together, and more, apparently, than could be accounted for by his MI6 paycheck. “Had this money,” asks one observer, “been earned from the INO, an intelligence-gathering branch of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s sinister Cheka?” Good question. 

It’s unclear, then, whether Ransome was a traitor. But he was, unquestionably, a useful stooge – or, to use the famous phrase that his comrade Lenin might actually have coined with him in mind, a useful idiot.

Warren Beatty and Lenin’s “fight for freedom”

On Friday we harked back to 1981 and the movie Reds, Warren Beatty‘s nostalgic look at the beginnings of Soviet Communism. 

A trailer for the film makes it clear exactly how Beatty viewed it and how he wanted potential audiences to view it. “There is a movie,” reads the on-screen copy, “that challenges conservative politics[,] that shines a spotlight on the issues of our day.” It’s about “a nation’s right to freedom…about the fight for freedom.”

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Alexander Kerensky

Let’s break this down: this trailer is actually suggesting that the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution of 1917 – which overthrew the democratic government under Alexander Kerensky that had been installed after the February Revolution of 1917 and replaced it with a totalitarian regime – was a step forward for freedom. Yes, the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to decades of oppression, terror, forced collectivization, show trials, political murders, genocide in the Ukraine, the Gulag, and much else. Furthermore, the trailer equates the Kerensky government with American conservatives circa 1981 (the year, of course, that Ronald Reagan became president), and implies that both are enemies of freedom; meanwhile it likens the Bolsheviks to the American Democratic Party of 1981, and suggests that both are heroes of freedom.  

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Dorchester Hotel, London

Beatty began writing Reds in 1976 with Marxist playwright Trevor Griffiths. They worked together on their screenplay celebrating Communism during months-long stints at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel in New York, the Dorchester in London (described by Wikipedia as “one of the world’s most prestigious and expensive hotels”), and the glamorous Plaza Athénée in Paris. Sometimes, while working in Paris, they were helped out on the script by Elaine May, who flew in and out of New York on the Concorde. There’s no record that any of them saw the irony in any of this. 

redsposterCertainly the irony seems lost on Peter Biskind, author of an in-depth Vanity Fair article about the making of Reds. Biskind makes it clear that he finds the “idealism” of the film’s hero, John Reed, praiseworthy, and he expresses regret that this “idealism…seems even more alien today than it did in 1981, given the current cynicism about politics.” He actually writes the following about Reed (played by Beatty) and his girlfriend and fellow Communist, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton): “More than just lovers, more than just revolutionaries, they have made political lives, lived their politics, and Reds is above all a tribute to that.” At least the late Roger Ebert picked up on the irony, noticing in his review that the copyright statement at the end of this film about a man who hated millionaires reads “Copyright MCMLXXXI Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited.” Beatty, for his part, appeared, by the time he won the Oscar for Best Director, to have recognized the contradictions at the heart of his own project, giving a nod in his acceptance speech to the bigwigs at Paramount and its then parent company, Gulf + Western, for their “decision, taken in the great capitalistic tower of Gulf + Western, to finance a three-and-a-half hour romance which attempts to reveal for the first time just something of the beginnings of American socialism and American communism.”

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Film rights, anyone?

Don’t get us wrong. Reds is a terrific piece of filmmaking – excellently acted and directed, with splendid production design, stirring set pieces, a lucidly told and fast-paced story about memorable characters. That’s precisely the problem. Beatty made a hero out of America’s most prominent early enthusiast for the Russian Revolution, and did a remarkably effective job of making that useful stooge’s blind devotion to a cruel and monstrous tyranny look praiseworthy, exciting, and supremely romantic. One can only be sorry that Beatty was moved to make a film about an ardent fan of Boshevism rather than about any one of its millions of victims. When, one wonders, will Tinseltown release a movie on the scale of Reds about the Gulag?