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.
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.
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.
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.