An Armful of History Books

Family Betrayal: Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network by David Burke (History Press, 2021; 292 pp.)

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor (Viking, 2022; 576 pp.)

In the Wake of Empire: Anti-Bolshevik Russia in International Affairs, 1917-1920 by Anatol Shmelev (Hoover Institution Press, 2020; 555 pp.)

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him by Donald Rayfield (Random House, 2004; 541 pp.)

Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945 by Halik Kochanski (Liveright, 2022; 936 pp.)

Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth by Jane Rogoyska (Oneworld, 2022; 370 pp.)

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Family Betrayal by David Burke

The title of David Burke’s latest book, Family Betrayal, raises some pertinent questions about who was betraying whom. Was a family betrayed? Or did a whole family betray some other agency? With a sub-title of Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network, and a hammer and sickle boldly displayed against a red flag on the cover, the suggestion would appear to be that Burke is delving into the world of Soviet espionage and treason. The subjects of his tale, the Kuczynskis, as agents of Stalinism are presumably to be given a bad rap for betraying the United Kingdom, the country that gave them asylum and employment. Such expectations will be rapidly demolished, however. The Kuczynskis, a ‘comfortable German bourgeois family of Jewish origin’ are further described as ‘a remarkable family of Communist refugees from Nazism’, and ‘not only a family who spied but also one of the chief channels of leakage of information to the Soviets from a variety of sources’. This is the language of adulation.

Burke may be familiar to readers of intelligence literature as the author of The Spy Who Came In From The Co-op (2008), about Melita Norwood,and The Lawn Road Flats (2014), which explored the nest of leftist subversion located in the modernist Hampstead address in the 1930s and early 1940s. In both books, the author complemented someremarkable sleuthing with what can only be called padding, where extraneous and much repeated lore about espionage and counter-espionage was trotted out to give the books more substance. Quite simply, there was not enough known about Melita Norwood to form a book, and Burke resorted to writing about such figures as Percy Glading, Klaus Fuchs, Kim Philby and Igor Gouzenko, all of whom had little to do directly with Norwood and the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association where she worked.

A similar pattern emerges with Family Betrayal. Apart from boosting the size and vigour of ‘The Kuczynski Network’, an entity to which the author devoted a whole chapter in the Lawn Road Flats, Burke chooses to enrich his rather thin gruel with a number of profiles of related hangers-on and associates within the broader ‘anti-fascist’ movement, the assorted societies and factions to which they belonged, and the requisite pamphlets and lectures with which they harangued the public at large. Political activities are introduced rather haphazardly, so we learn about the Indian Communist Party and the Greek Civil War, even though such phenomena have only a very vague connection with the shenanigans of the Kuczynskis.

In 2017, John Green published his study of the Kuczynskis (A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War), and last year Ben Macintyre released his rather fanciful profile of the family’s most notable scion in Agent Sonya. So what new information has Burke to offer? He cites Green only once, and the arrival of Macintyre’s book assuredly occurred too late for him to assimilate it. Yet Burke has dug around the archives pertinaciously enough to reveal some useful new (or overlooked) facts about the Kuczynskis (such as the employment at Bletchley Park of Barbara Kuczynski’s husband Duncan Taylor, a tidbit that had eluded this writer). He provides a wealth of detail on the backgrounds of the various lovers and spouses that the six Kuczynski offspring maintained, and their contributions to the cause of Stalinism. It is perhaps no surprise that MI5 failed to decompose this complex web of subversives.

Yet Burke also completely misconstrues some important aspects of their lives, for instance collapsing Ursula’s miraculous escape from Switzerland in a single sentence, and attributing its success to the wiles of a Kuczynski uncle, Hermann Deutsch, who ‘finalized the arrangements to bring Ursula to Britain’. This assertion is in complete contradiction to what Burke described in The Lawn Road Flats (her transfer was ordered by Stalin), and moreover completely ignores how MI6 colluded in her pursuit of a divorce, naturalization, and an exit visa. On Ursula’s ‘spying’, or more accurately, acting as a courier for Klaus Fuchs, Burke repeats the now tired myth that she transmitted Fuchs’s secrets from a wireless concealed at Great Rollright. He has been misled by many mendacious memoirs.

Above all, however, Burke displays a lack of intellectual curiosity that might have given his book some snap. To begin with, it is as if he feels a little guilty about spending so much ink on such a disreputable clan. In his Introduction, he writes:

            How legitimate is spying in defence of a cause? Is it possible to confer the honourable title of anti-Nazi resistance on the Kuczynski family, and have done with it? Or should we condemn the family for its espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union that, in the main, targeted Great Britain and the British Empire?

Burke never resolves this question. One of his conclusions is that, from 1920 to 1999 ‘the Kuczynskis never faltered in their unswerving support for the Soviet Union’, and he rewards such Stalinist fervour with the following judgment:

            Anyone writing about the skills of the Kuczynskis as spies confronts a thorny issue: their abilities might be manifest but their Stalinism cannot be glanced over lightly. What makes this a difficult activity is the fact that Stalinism, unless attacked with a moral vocabulary that misrepresents the true nature of the phenomenon, was a system that attracted many good people, the Kuczynskis among them.

Here lies the traditional apology for Stalin’s useful idiots and fellow-travellers –  their sincerity. Some might say that an ability to be duped by Stalin’s monstrous regime, and to try to reproduce it elsewhere, was a sign of moral deficiency, not goodness. Yet the process of ‘glancing over lightly’ is exactly what Burke exercises.

For example:

* In 1938 the paterfamilias, Robert Kuczynski, was appointed Reader in Demography at the London School of Economics, where he concentrated on ‘methodological questions and the study of non-European populations’. What insights he brought to this position is not explained, but he assuredly did not comment on the fact that, when the 1937 census showed that Soviet Union’s population had decreased during the Great Terror, Stalin had the chief officers in the Census Bureau executed, nor, when Robert was offered the post of Democratic Adviser to the Colonial Office in 1943, did he discuss Stalin’s wholesale deportations of nations (e.g. Germans, Kalmyks, Tatars) from their homelands to regions east, as a punishment exercise.

* Jürgen was a consistent critic of labour conditions in the West. In 1938, his book Hunger and Work was published, and Burke informs us that it described ‘seven lean years at the height of the depression from 1931 to 1937’. Yet he makes no comparison with real labour conditions in the Soviet Union (of which Jürgen presented a ‘roseate picture’ the following year), where the economy functioned largely on slave labour, and where prisoners in the Gulag were driven to exhaustion and death, to be replaced by innocent victims in their thousands. Burke presents the work as a defence against such charges, and posts that opinion without comment.

* In 1939, the Left Book Club published Jürgen’s The Condition of the Workers in Gt. Britain, Germany and The Soviet Union. A main theme of the book, Burke informs us, was ‘its damning indictment of the role played by finance capitalism’, and the young firebrand compared Great Britain’s version of ‘finance capitalism’ with Germany’s, concluding ‘Fascism rules’. Burke never inspects what ‘finance capitalism’ meant in the environment of the late 1930s, in what way it made sense to present capitalist enterprises as being driven by non-financial interests, or how the inferred monopolistic tendencies compared to the totalitarian control of industry in the Soviet Union.

Those are just a few of the occasions when a more imaginative writer might have introduced some refreshing context and educational perspective to the questions he himself introduced. Yet Burke’s evasiveness appears to be derived from the fact that he actually admires this family of delusional, mischievous, ungrateful, hypocritical, gossipy busybodies. ‘Good agents need to be more than effective conspirators’, he states in his Conclusion. “They have to be capable of getting their bearings fast in ever-changing political situations and for this reason intelligence work is primarily political work”. And his final judgment is that the Kuczynzkis were undoubtedly suited to this activity. “Norwood and the Kuczynskis were successful not simply because they were adept in the field of their intelligence, but because they had a belief in the certitude of their ideology.”

In summary, this is a weak book, misguided in its conception, and evasive in its execution. The author could have converted his fascinating researches on archival material, newspapers, memoirs, etc. into a valuable analysis of the ferment of ideas that seethed in the totalitarian-dominated 1930s. He could perhaps have explained where fervor ended and knowledge began, and why it was that so many ‘good people’ chose to ignore the realities of Stalin’s massive prison-camp, and instead tried to bring about the Communist utopia to the western world. For those interested in the petty squabbles of the leftist intelligentsia of those times, and the multitude of factions, societies, and pressure-groups that were formed, Family Betrayal may be a useful addition to their library, but even for them, the book’s multiple errors, a style that is frequently clumsy, and the author’s amoral lack of intellectual guidance, will probably leave them disappointed.

Russia by Antony Beevor

“Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” (A. J. P. Taylor)

This is not the first occasion where I have used the above quotation by the historian A. J. P. Taylor in a coldspur piece, nor will it probably be the last. It shocked me when I first read it in 1965, and it astounds me still. To think that Lenin, whose ideas for revolution were ridden with hatred and cruelty from the first, could be considered by any educated person as some semi-saintly figure, is simply perverse. For an influential historian to promulgate such an agenda (in the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century) was strikingly irresponsible and absurd, and yet Taylor exerted a strong influence on British popular imagination.

If testimony were required to reinforce the notion that the Russian Revolution was steeped from the outset in extreme and barbarous killing, Antony Beevor’s Russia should fulfill that role. It is in fact a catalogue of horrors. After the August 1918 killing of the Petrograd Cheka leader Moisey Uritsky, and the assassination attempt on Lenin (both exploits being the work of single subversives), Felix Dzerzhinsky ordered that ‘that all those listed as Kadet party members, police officers, officials of the monarchy, and all sorts of princes and counts imprisoned in Moscow jails and concentration camps were to be executed’. Thus did the Red Terror start – with the slaughter of the innocent, except that, in Lenin’s mind, anyone who opposed the Revolution was guilty.

Not that the Reds had exclusive ownership of excruciating methods of torturing and killing their enemies (e.g. burying alive; tying up in barbed wire, or loaded with stones, and drowning; throwing alive into furnaces; disembowelling by rats; hacking to death with sabres; slow burning; smothered naked by freezing water): the Whites, conscious of the deeds of the Bolsheviks, and the initiation of the ‘Red Terror’, exacted their own revenge in retributions of similar fashion. The strategy of executing anyone who showed resistance to the Revolution, as ‘class enemies’, does not fit easily into current notions of ‘genocide’, which focus unduly on supposed ‘ethnic’ traits as being a reason for extermination, and that is probably why the monstrous massacres of the Reds have not received the attention and scorn that they in fact merit.

I find it difficult to sort out Antony Beevor, if indeed he has to be sorted. He does not have a conventional historian’s background. He was born two days before me, so I can understand his general arc of experience. After Winchester School, and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he received a commission in the 11th Hussars in July 1967, but then resigned it in August 1970. The next event in his life appears to be the publication of The Spanish Civil War in 1982. So what had he been up to in the intervening years? It is unusual for any young man with spark – even if independently wealthy – not to pursue some life-expanding profession in his formative twenties, but Beevor appears to keep this dark. Was he perhaps ‘attached to the War Office’, as they use to write of spooks in World War II? Or did he seclude himself away, reading prodigiously and taking copious notes for a decade or more as preparation for writing his first book?

I had read Beevor’s D-Day, and was impressed with its narrative drive, and rich detail. It admittedly takes an especial sense of geography to keep track of all the fronts, salients, flanks, redoubts, bottlenecks, pincer movements, etc. that characterized these battles – or any other, for that matter, and my spatial understanding frequently failed to keep up with the action. Beevor used a broad array of sources to highlight the myriad small disasters that occurred as the often ill-conceived plans of the Allied assault forces were executed on the beaches and in the difficult bocages of Normandy. For example, he was excellent on comparing the tactics of the Germans, fresh with lessons from the Eastern Front, with those of the Americans and British, who had been practicing in the lanes and fields of southern England. But this was a terrain he was familiar with: the geography was localized, the combatants and causes were clear, the archival sources were generally reliable, and he understood well the social backgrounds of the main combatants. He was able to complement the official records with a wealth of personal memoirs. As one review stated: “His account of atrocities on both sides, of errors committed and of surpassing bravery makes for excellent – though often blood-soaked – reading.”

Russia is even more blood-soaked. Yet Beevor faces a vastly different landscape in trying to bring the same technique to the horrors of the Revolution and the Civil War. The territory covered is the Eurasian continental landmass, from Warsaw to Vladivostok. The agents are a mixed lot of nationals, tribes, factions and groups. The historical record is fragmented, and may not be very reliable. Any sense of strategy or historical direction is undermined by the chaos of the punches and counterpunches of the conflict. In some ways, Russia is a magnificent scrap-book, a compilation of hundreds of facts and observations scrupulously arranged by date and location. Yet it frequently comes across as exactly that, with a bewildering collage of names and places that strain even the most patient reader. Without constant recourse to detailed maps (as with D-Day), one is lost.

For example, one can read such passages as:

There was no guarantee that the Baltic States could defend themselves, yet at the same time the White Russian forces planned to attack Petrograd. But neither the Finns nor the Estonians welcomed these anti-Bolshevik Russian supremacists who refused to acknowledge their independence. A White venture to invade Soviet territory was likely to fail and provoke a Red counter-attack. And to complicate the Baltic imbroglio further, while Yudenich applied to the British and French for military support, there was another White Russian force under Colonel Pavel Bermondt-Avalov financed from Berlin, and

Denikin, increasingly angered by separatist tendencies in the Kuban, was outraged to discover that a delegation of the Kuban Rada had signed a treaty of friendship with the Chechen and Ingush who, with Georgian encouragement, had been attacking the Volunteer Army in the Caucasus

only a few times before one’s eyes start to glaze over. This was not a simple civil war.

It is also not clear to me what knowledge Beevor expects his readership to have already. For instance, he lists the factions in the 1917 Provisional Government (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Kadets, Socialist Revolutionaries, Progressives) without any explanation as to how they evolved, or what their different agendas were. Of the three likely reasons for eliding this matter, i) he is not interested, or is unaware; ii) he assumes his readers all know this already; or iii) he regards such details as irrelevant to the main story; I must assume that the third is the likeliest. Yet he snows his text with such a cavalcade of names that it is easy to become lost in the torrent. And his rather cavalier and incomplete Index does not help matters. I had a particular interest in three names: Paul Dukes, who played a significant role in intelligence-gathering for MI6; Leonid Kannegiser, who assassinated the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Uritsky (and was related to Rudolf Peierls’s wife, about whom I have written); and General Evgeny Miller, the leader of the Northern Russian Government, who was later abducted in Paris and killed by Stalin’s goons in Moscow. Each individual receives one brief mention in Beevor’s text: none of the names appears in the Index. That seems to me to be irresponsible: Beevor does not declare the rationale for including some key figures in the Index, but not others.

Beevor is stronger, and more forthright, on the actions and mistakes of the Whites than he is on the Reds. The White armies were dispersed, over thousands of miles, with Yudenich leading in the North, Kolchak in the East, and Denikin (constantly at loggerheads with Wrangel, and criticized by many as being too liberal) in the South. Their communications had to be routed via Paris, and consequently took weeks to arrive: if they had enjoyed access to Zoom, matters might have turned out differently. But they were corrupt: many of them drank to excess, or took drugs. They mistreated their ranks, and looted for the benefits of their families, mistresses, and clans. They alienated what peasant allies they might have had by insisting on a return to the old system of land-ownership, and they lost any possible loyalty from populations of outlying territories (e.g. Finland, Estonia, Latvia) by insisting that their goals included restoration of the old imperial boundaries. All that those fighting the Bolsheviks had in common was a hatred of communism.

The Reds, on the other hand, were single-minded. Yet Beevor spends less time on their energies and activities. Lenin is a very shadowy figure during this period. Admittedly, he did not interfere in military affairs in the way that Hitler, Stalin or Churchill did, and other sources inform us that he spent most of his time ordering that anyone disobedient or timid should be shot. Trotsky (also not an expert in warfare) zipped around on his special train, printing pamphlets and broadsides, and exhorting the troops. After intense discussion, Trotsky and Lenin had decided, over Stalin’s objections, that the Red Army needed professional soldiers to develop a proper fighting army, and thus members of the tsarist officer corps were recruited, on pain of death to their families if they showed signs of cowardice, or betraying the revolution, to train the men and lead them into battle. In July 1919, the tsarist General Sergei Kamenev (not Lev, the Bolshevik) was appointed commander-in-chief of the Red Army over Trotsky’s strenuous objections, but makes few appearances on the scene after that, until Stalin berates him and Trotsky for the disastrous Warsaw campaign.

But how were all these armies, and the secret police, recruited? Was the Cheka staffed with criminals and psychopaths, or were the common people convinced of the need for mass terror, and signed up? How did they learn such bloodlust? In a paradoxical aside, Beevor claims that the head of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky, was something of a softie, leaving the killing to others, but then, a page later, writes that he murdered a member of the left Socialist Revolutionaries, Aleksandrovich , ‘of whom he became rather fond’, with his own hand. Were the organs and soldiers press-ganged? How were the armies populated, trained, supplied, and kept motivated? Beevor failed to engage in such pressing questions, an oversight that leaves his story incomplete. (These were issues he covered well in D-Day.) He spends much more time on Churchill, the British secretary of state for war, who displayed his most picaresque tendencies in his hatred of Bolshevism, and brought Prime Minister Lloyd George to distraction, than he does on the Red Army leaders, and their conduct of the war. He is flimsy on the claims, now apparently confirmed, that the Bolsheviks were very reliant on German gold to finance the war.

Beevor provides some crisp description and analysis. He is sound on the dithering of Kerensky with the Provisional Government; he is incisive in telling the story of Kolchak’s eventual betrayal, trial, and execution; he describes the horrific exodus from Odessa, with the thousands left behind to be murdered, with chilling detail. His prose is mainly elegant, although he shows the occasional lack of language sense, such as with the clumsy lack of agreement in “Yet the presence of British armored cars in Kiev were thought to have prevented a Bolshevik uprising”. I note here some errata to be fixed in the paperback edition: ‘Xenephon’ (Xenophon) on page 126; ‘sunk’ (sank) on page 136; ‘Phyrric’ (Pyrrhic) in note on page 350; ‘kaleidescope’ (kaleidoscope) on page 469. The Index is inadequate.

In summary, a rich, encyclopedic compilation, but rather indigestible. Apart from reinforcing the horrors and widespread brutality of a wrenching Civil War by including a wide section of details from memoirs, Russia does not provide much fresh insight into the motivations and objectives of its combatants.

In the Wake of Empire by Anatol Shmelev

In Russia, Antony Beevor summed up the failure of the Whites as follows: “The different armies of Kolchak in Siberia, Denikin in the south, and Yudenich in the Baltics had never been able to coordinate their operations. The very few communications between them, which went via Paris, took weeks to arrive. The great handicap of the Whites was their dispersion around the central core of Soviet territory, while the Red Army benefitted enormously from interior lines or communication and a more centralized command structure.”

That, in a nutshell, is the subject of Dr. Anatol Shmelev’s In the Wake of Empire, which is a very different compilation. I must declare an interest: I have met Dr. Shmelev, and found his company very rewarding, as I wrote a few months ago, when I gave a thumbnail sketch of his book. But I have unrestrained and objective admiration for the depth of his scholarship in tracking down the minutiae of the Whites’ negotiations with foreign governments during the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to wait until Beevor’s book came out before giving it the full critical appreciation. In his bibliography, Beevor credits Shmelev with three earlier references (including a preliminary and much narrower version of this book, published in Russian in 2017, The Foreign Policy of Admiral Kolchak’s Government, 1918-1919), but clearly has not studied the ‘substantially reworked and broadened volume’ (in Shmelev’s words) that was issued in 2021.

Shmelev is one of those scholars who have been able to take advantage of the considerable number of archives that were opened up in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s before Putin retightened the screws. He received his PhD from the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1996, and thereafter, apart from being able to use familiar archival resources, including the substantial material at the Hoover Institution, he was able to draw on the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (AVPRI), the Russian State Naval Archive (RGAVMF), and the Russian State and Russian National Libraries, as well as the Library of the Academy of Sciences and the Russian State Historical Library.

The outcome is that an enormous amount of material has had to be sifted through, and Shmelev carries the task out with aplomb. The overall story is perhaps familiar: how the various White factions, dispersed around the fringes of the old Russian Empire, tried to prevail on the western powers to help them oust the hated Reds, but that those countries, exhausted by the travails of the Great War, were reluctant to assist an entity that presented fresh imperial ambitions and might be a threat to them if successful. The Communists were an unknown quantity, and their terrors not yet known: the public citizenry was overall against intervention, and it was left to energetic politicians like Churchill to try to raise money and troops for what would turn out to be a lost cause. The Whites’ insistence on restoring the old Russian imperial boundaries disaffected many potential allies who also detested Bolshevism, in, for example, the former Duchy of Finland, who had more independent aspirations.

Baron Roman Ungern-Shternberg

The author brings fresh depth and insights to the debate, and his judgment over much controversial material is authoritative but not pedantic. His sketches of some of the players who contributed – some well-known, others less familiar – are frequently incisive and innovative. I was captivated, for example, by the name of Ungern-Shternberg, almost as arresting as that of Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, who led the British overseas mission to Moscow in 1939. I was familiar with Roman Ungern-Shternberg, known as the ‘Mad Baron’, a White Russian psychopath (b. 1886) who terrorized Siberia and was executed by the Reds in 1921, and wondered how he was related to the Baron Rolf Ungern-Shternberg, the Russian chargé d’affaires in Lisbon, who gains a couple of paragraphs from Shmelev for rather dangerously supporting Trotsky’s plans for peace proposals. Some searches on the Web led me to multiple branches of the Ungern-Shternberg family tree, but I could not find any connections going a couple of generations back. Estonia must have been riddled with offshoots of the clan.

I also learned much about the tortured attempts by Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, to gain recognition and support from the western democracies, even while he tried to steer a problematic path between Lenin and Kolchak, represented by the group of leftist activists known endearingly as the ‘ninisty’ (‘neither-nor’; ‘neither Lenin nor Kolchak’). (Were they perhaps the models for ‘the knights who say “Ni!”’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?) Even though the initiative might have impressed President Wilson, appealing to the harsh Kolchak, maybe the strongest White officer, that he should become more democratic was a hopeless cause. As Shmelev writes: “For the mainstream Whites, the ninisty remained a symbol of the despised Kerenschina of 1917, hollow and rotten.”

Shmelev’s account is liberally sprinkled with many such illuminating insights and observations. I might challenge, however, one or two perspectives. For instance, he describes how the White ‘appeals for Allied aid and pressure on Finland and the Baltic States show that White foreign policy was being conducted in a vacuum – their representatives not only had no influence over foreign policy, but more often that had no conception of Allied policy.’ I would add that was mainly because the pluralist democracies did not possess a single-minded coherent policy – not just amongst themselves, several different countries with unique histories and territorial outlooks, but internally, within their governments (as the clashes between Lloyd George and Churchill prove), and even within their individual offices of administration, as inside the British Foreign Office itself. So perhaps it was not surprising that the Whites could not discern the intentions of their potential saviours. I also questioned (in a private email) Shmelev’s characterization of Churchill’s attitude to Bolshevism: “Long after the civil war, he continued to inveigh against the dangers of Bolshevism, and it was only the Second World War that brought about an alliance that must have amazed Churchill himself, although the end of the war resulted in the return of the natural order of things.” ‘The natural order of things’, with Stalin’s prison-camp extended over all eastern Europe? That is a bizarre assessment, and one of the very few where I judge Shmelev puts a foot wrong.

One highly illuminating event for me was the issuance of the document known as ‘the Colby Note’. After the Whites had been ousted in Siberia in early 1920, Bainbridge Colby, who had been appointed by USA President Polk as Secretary of State, sent a note to the Italian ambassador describing the attitudes of the United States towards the ongoing Polish-Soviet war. In what could be interpreted as a repudiation of Wilsonian self-determination, it savagely criticized the morals and policies of the Bolshevik government and hinted at official recognition of the previous boundaries of the Russian Empire – except for Finland, ‘ethnic Poland’ [an amorphous entity!], and part of the state of Armenia. in fact, Wilson thought that Bolshevik Russia would self-destruct as it was ‘wrong’ – a woefully feeble assessment. As Shmelev points out, it did collapse – but not until seventy years later. Yet the articulations of an ill-prepared Secretary of State gave hope to many, especially General Wrangel, who stated that the Colby Note represented his own political program. The initiative was unauthorized, too weak, too late, and too muddled, and fizzled out.

What fascinates me is how the White movement tried to persevere after the war, and how determined the Bolsheviks were to eradicate it, partly out of political principle, but also out of vengeance. The memoirs of exiled tsarist officers, trying to maintain a life of dignity in the West (particularly in Paris), but frequently having to work as cab-drivers or kitchen-hands, are exquisitely sad, but also rather pathetic are the aspirations they maintained about the chances of overturning the revolution, and perhaps of regaining their position and prestige. Stalin manipulated such persons most cruelly, infiltrated ROVS (the Russian émigré military veterans’ organization) with OGPU agents, and carefully killed such prominent persons as Generals Miller and Kutepov. Shmelev provides an Epilogue where he summarizes the fates of many of the diplomats who managed to escape (although for some reason overlooks Vrangel [sometimes Wrangel], who was probably poisoned by Stalin’s thugs in 1928), and highlights the role that the treacherous Sergey Tret’iakov played. Tret’iakov had been appointed foreign minister under Kolchak in 1919, but made an ingenious escape to Harbin and Japan before settling In Japan, and then moving to Paris. He was later recruited by the NKVD, and betrayed Kutepov (in 1930) and Miller (in 1937). Tret’iakov was arrested by the Germans in June 1942, and taken to Germany to be shot.

In the Wake of Empire is not the definitive story of the collapse of the White resistance to the Bolsheviks. There probably can be no such volume: neither is Beevor’s. But it should be read as a necessary complement to the blood and thunder of the tales of the Revolution and Civil War. Very little blood is spilled in Shmelev’s book, but a host of fascinating details of what went on behind the scenes is provided instead. Clausewitz said that war was a continuation of politics by other means, but the Whites were forced into war without having a chance to negotiate, to practice their politics. And then they were too fragmented, too dispersed geographically, and lacked authority. Diplomacy is also an aspect of bringing war to a close, but they were outgunned, outmanœuvred and outwitted by the ruthlessness of the Reds.

Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield is another historian who has been able to exploit the availability of new Russian archival material, in his case in order to shed fresh light on Stalin’s murderous schemes. He cites the State Archive of Social-Political History and the State Archive of the Russian Federation as his richest sources, while lamenting that the FSB has recently restricted its access to families of the oppressed and former employees, and that the Presidential Archive has become much more conservative in what it releases. Rayfield, who speaks Russian and Georgian, extended his search to the Georgian Central State Archive and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art as well as several private collections. “There is enough material for seven maids with seven mops for seven thousand years”, he writes in his Preface, ”and much remains unexplored, particularly since archival catalogues give only the vaguest indication of what anything may hold.” Thus we may hope to expect further revelations – so long as historians with the calibre and style of Professor Rayfield are around to inspect them.

For a comprehensive and insightful account of the machinations of the various secret police organizations in Russia (including those of tsarist times), I would recommend Ronald Hingley’s excellent Russian Secret Police (1970), although he was able to use only a much more restricted set of sources. Rayfield is able to go into much more detail on the personalities of the chiefs involved, and their habits and character, as well as expand coverage to a broad set of players.  The author, Professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, is a proper man of letters, and I referred to his impressive biography of Anton Chekhov in my September post. Since then, I have also read his book Understanding Chekhov, which sheds penetrating light on the influences on the writer’s works, and skillfully explains how he achieves his effects in the stories and plays. Not unexpectedly, then, Stalin and His Hangmen expresses a flair for language and idiom: moreover, Rayfield displays some of the same stylistic traits of understatement and irony that Hingley used to such great effect.

But why ‘Hangmen’? It was not until April, 1943 that Stalin introduced public hanging as a method of execution, borrowing from the Germans, because he concluded that shooting was ‘too lenient’. Lenin had in fact recommended that method back in 1918, as it would have the educational value of being visible to the public. (In 1943, it also led to spectators stealing clothes from the bodies of the corpses.) The title of the book would better be Stalin and His Executioners, but maybe Rayfield thought that that nomenclature would echo too closely Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and thus selected the more figurative term. Then again, his subject is actually the chiefs of his Stalin’s terror apparatus – the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD and the various manifestations of the KGB – those who prepared the lists and sent them to Stalin to sign, who issued the quotas and ordered the extralegal executions. They were not Albert Pierrepoints: Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka in Moscow, shot someone himself on only one occasion. The victim was a drunken sailor, according to Rayfield (testimony that thus collides with Beevor’s), and it provoked a convulsive fit. Poor sensitive soul. Still, it makes poetic sense to call Dzerzhinsky and his successors all ‘murderers’.

I was pleased to see that Rayfield takes an outspoken stance on the horrors of Stalinism in the 1930s. When I described, in my doctoral thesis (and repeated in Misdefending the Realm, p 282) how Stalin’s massacres of his citizens had vastly outnumbered the murders that Hitler perpetrated against his victims (communists, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, etc.) in that decade, I received some pushback from Professor Glees, as if I were diminishing the evils of the Holocaust. Yet the facts of Stalin’s own funeral pyre were undeniable – even though Stalin nurtured a set of western ‘useful idiots’ at the time who did indeed deny them, as Rayfield records. I stoutly defended my statements. Moreover, Rayfield points out that not only does the Putin regime not deny the Stalinist evils, it actually celebrates its ‘heroes’. He writes in his Preface:

In 2002, without comment abroad or at home, the Russian post office issued a set of stamps, ‘The 80th Anniversary of Soviet Counterintelligence’: the stamps show Artur Artuzov né Frautschi, one of the most dreaded OGPU leaders in the early 1920s; Sergei Puzitsky, who organized the killing of half a million Cossacks in 1931; Vladmir Styrne, who slaughtered thousands of Uzbeks in the 1920s; Vsevolod Balitsky, who purged the Ukraine and enslaved the Soviet peasantry. Imagine the uproar if Germany issued stamps commemorating Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann. Nobody in Germany smokes ‘Auschwitz’ cigarettes but Belomorkanal cigarettes, commemorating a camp where 100,000 were exterminated, are still sold in Russia.

State-sponsored terrorism began as soon as the Revolution started, and was aggressively promoted by Lenin. After the assassination attempt on Lenin by Fanny Kaplan, and the successful killing of the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Leon Uritsky, in 1918, the Red Terror started. Anybody who expressed – or even symbolized – counter-revolutionary impulses was in danger. Dzerzhinksy took out his lists, and started killing indiscriminately. As Rayfield informs us: “In 1919 all Moscow’s Boy Scouts, and in 1920 all members of its lawn tennis club were shot.” Thus the slaughter began, complemented by the campaigns of targeted persecution, such as the liquidation of so-called ‘kulaks’, whose only crime might have been to have owned a cow or two, or kept some grain for themselves, which resulted in the frightful famines in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the creation of the Gulags, which few survived, followed by the Great Terror. As late as 1938, 328,618 executions (yes, each death was recorded) for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ took place. (Robert Conquest estimated that the NKVD killed two million directly, i.e. discounting deaths in the Gulag, in 1937 and 1938.) As if the total population of Nottingham were taken out and shot over the course of twelve months.

Felix Dzherzhinsky

Rayfield describes a grisly series of murderers with panache and energy. To begin with they were mostly non-Russians. Dzerzhinsky was a Pole, and the bulk of his crew were initially Poles and Latvians who had been oppressed in their native countries. Then native Russians joined the slaughter: ‘convicted criminals and certified psychopaths appointed themselves officers of the Cheka’. What is extraordinary is the degree to which cultured individuals, too, such as artists and doctors, could banish any inhibitions and cruelly torture and kill innocent human beings simply because they had been told that they were ‘enemies of the people’. Dzerzhinsky died of ill-health, as did his successor, Menzhinksy, another Pole, whom Rayfield portrays as relatively human. Many of these sadists eventually became victims themselves, including Yagoda (the head of the NKVD from 1934 to 1936), and his successor Yezhov, who, like Kamenev, went to the dungeons of execution bawling for mercy. Yezhov, having been responsible for the horrifying purges in his régime known as the Yezhovschina, was dismissed for not showing enough chekist vigilance, but then condemned to death for his over-exuberance.

The last of Stalin’s hangmen, Lavrenty Beria, comes under some provocative treatment by Rayfield, who bizarrely expresses some kind of admiration for him (p 343). 

Unlike Ezhov, Beria knew when to hold back, when to step back. Beria was not just a vindictive sadist, he was an intelligent pragmatist, capable of mastering a complex brief, and one of the best personnel managers in the history of the USSR. With very slight adaptations, he could have made himself a leading politician in any country of the world.

But he then he goes on to write about Beria’s libertine behaviour (p 459):

As for Beria’s legendary sexual proclivities, he was certainly guilty of many rapes – usually by blackmail rather than force – and of violating young girls. On the other hand, some of his mistresses were fond, or at least respectful, of him. By the standards of some Soviet leaders, who used the Bolshoi Ballet as a brothel, or even compared to J. F. Kennedy or David Lloyd George, Beria was not beyond the pale, even if at intervals during meetings he ordered women to be delivered to his house, as modern politicians order pizzas.

On a pervert like Beria, this judgment appears to me to fall on the wrong side of good taste.

Lavrenty Beria

The crux of the matter was that Stalin harbored fatal grudges against anyone who had ever opposed him, had challenged the righteousness of any Politburo decisions engineered by him, or weaknesses in the Soviet infrastructure (such as fallible aircraft), anyone who had ever voiced sympathy for Trotsky, or assisted in his attempts at propaganda, anyone who had recommended more lenient policies (such as Bukharin), or who had shown him up as flawed in military action (like Tukhachevsky, from the Polish campaign of 1920-1921). He had his spies and surveillance mechanisms, and knew exactly what his detractors said about him. They all had to go, eventually, just like the millions of utterly innocent victims whose neighbours or co-workers may have got their defamation in first, or who were banished to the Gulag on utterly spurious charges.

On Stalin, Rayfield expresses more sceptical opinions on some of the allegations that have populated other biographies of the dictator. When the head of the NKVD in Spain, Alexander Orlov, defected in 1937, it was later rumoured that he had knowledge that Stalin had been an agent of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, and had thus bargained his protection out of it. Rayfield appears to dismiss this. The assassination of Sergey Kirov, the party secretary in Leningrad, in 1934, has been broadly stated to have been engineered by Stalin himself, as a way of eliminating a dangerous rival. (Kirov could be seen in relation to Stalin as DeSantis is to Trump.) Rayfield pours cold water on this theory, too, while agreeing that the killing gave Stalin an excuse to purge others in the rival urban centre who threatened him. Here, he goes against the grain of what others – including Hingley – have concluded, with Hingley citing the hints that Khrushchev supplied in his 1956 speech denunciating Stalin. On the Tukhachevsky affair (where the Red Army general was accused of plotting against Stalin, which may well have been true, and was executed with seven other outstanding commanders in June 1937), Rayfield laconically writes: “Stalin’s ingratitude toward the Red Army, without whose brilliance and energy he could have died on the gallows in 1919 or 1920, is attributed by some to a German sting.” The inquisitive reader would be justified in desiring a more forthright and authoritative opinion than that. Likewise, Rayfield classifies Pavel Sudoplatov’s memoirs (Special Tasks) as ‘mendacious’ without explaining where they can be trusted, and where they should be treated with scepticism. It is an uneven performance.

The OKHRANA Badge

Rayfield’s stances are usually bold and vividly expressed, if a little idiosyncratically. I was puzzled as to why he insisted on spelling out Dzierzynski, Ezhov, Iagoda, and Khruschiov, when anyone who has been exposed to only a little Soviet history would be familiar with Dzerzhinsky, Yezhov, Yagoda, and Khrushchev. He whimsically refers to the tsarist secret police as the Okhranka, instead of the Okhrana. His prose is mainly very elegant, although I noticed some clumsy repetitions and flow of logic (for example, consecutive sentences starting with ‘But’), and some incorrect use of pronouns in appositional clauses. He uses the term ‘legendary’ inappropriately, in a journalistic voice. On the other hand, his sometimes waspish observations are almost universally sound and entertaining, as when, in true Hingleyesque style, he describes the atmosphere in 1937: “The streets of Moscow and Leningrad were still dangerous at night, but now that banditry was as severely punished as telling anti-Soviet jokes, some of the public regained confidence.”

Occasionally, his judgment falters, and he indulges in some donnish sermonizing. For example: “As Georgians, Stalin, Beria and Kobulov detested the Ingush and Chechens with that antipathy of lowland townsmen to highland warriors that goes back to the dawn of history and is still felt in Georgia.” This is dubious scholarship: I doubt whether such divisions existed ‘at the dawn of history’, whenever that was, and to characterize the peasant Stalin as a ‘lowland townsman’, as if he were an Edinburgh grocer, is erratic. And the final sentence of his book likewise displays a lack of academic rigour: “Until the story is told in full, and until the world community insists that the legacy of Stalin is fully accounted for and expiated, Russia will remain spiritually sick, haunted by the ghosts of Stalin and his hangmen, and, worse, by the nightmares of their resurrection.” ‘World community’? Who are those persons? There is an important message within this Thunbergian waffle, but Rayfield missed an important opportunity to explain to us how this transformation, and international pressure on Putin, could come about.

Lastly, I want to comment on some of Rayfield’s choice of poetry to amplify his messages. (My editor has generously granted me some extra space to digress on a matter of great personal interest to me.) On page 213, to introduce a section titled ‘The Trophy Writer’, where he discusses the writer Maxim Gorky, Rayfield introduces a fragment by the German poet Christian Morgenstern, which he has translated into English himself. He does not identify the title of the piece, but I can reveal that it is Der Werwolf (The Werewolf).

Christian Morgenstern’s ‘Galgenlieder’ & ‘Der Gingganz’

Dedicated coldspur readers may recall that Morgenstern is an enthusiasm of mine. As a teenager, I was introduced to him by the Cohens’ Penguin Books of Comic and Curious Verse, and I still have those volumes, as well as my dtv copies of Morgenstern’s Palmström and Galgenlieder in my poetry bookcase. He was a writer of nonsense verse, greatly influenced by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and died of tuberculosis shortly before the outbreak of World War 1. Consisting largely of plays on words, his verses are notoriously difficult to translate. The translations in the Penguin series were delivered by R. F. C. Hull (1913-1974), who worked at Bletchley Park in World War II on the Ultra transcripts.

The paradox behind Der Werwolf is the fact that ‘Wer’ means ‘Who’ in German, but has no plural form, and the Werewolf seeks out a dead grammarian who might explain how his family of multiple werewolves can exist. Hull tries to finesse the issue by using the ‘Were’ of ‘Werewolf’ to suggest a problem of conjugating a verb rather than declining a pronoun. He does a decent job of making the poem accessible to readers, but is challenged by the fact that ‘were’ is regularly a plural form already.

What this has to do with Gorky and Stalin is a mystery. Moreover, Rayfield’s attempt at translation is doggerel. He displays no metrical sense, and cuts off the verses before the crux appears. It is all rather pointless. Maybe he is simply a fan of Morgenstern, and wanted to promote him, but it is very bizarre. (My hunch concerning a personal enthusiasm was reinforced when I read Understanding Chekhov: Rayfield rather incongruously introduces Morgenstern by referring to his imitation of Chekhov’s ‘theatre of smell’.) This digression is a rare false note in what is a compelling story. Let those maids with their mops pick up the gauntlet, and insist that Putin recognize the errors of his ways.

Yet there is more of Morgenstern. Rayfield also, rather enigmatically, presents a standalone verse of Morgenstern’s, Allen Knechtschaffenen, translated as To All the Enslaved, as a frontispiece to the book. The verse runs as follows:

An alle Himmel schreib ich’s an,

die diesen Ball unspannen:

Nicht der Tyrann ist ein schimpflicher Mann,

aber der Knecht des Tyrannen.

Rayfield’s translation runs:

            I write it all over the heavens

That encompass our earthly sphere;  

It’s not the tyrant we should abuse,

But the serf who works for the tyrant.

This is very odd. First of all, what was Morgenstern, who wrote these lines in 1906, suggesting? That those suffering under tyranny were responsible for letting it happen? He could not have anticipated the Liquidation of the Kulaks, or the quiescence of the German citizenry under Hitler. While ‘Knecht’ itself has a more moderate meaning (‘servant’ or ‘menial’), the word ‘Knechtschaft’ has a more intense signification of ‘servitude’ or ‘slavery’, and Morgenstern’s title, Allen Knechtschaffenen, would therefore suggest all victims in that miserable state, as Rayfield’s translation endorses. In that case, Morgenstern would appear to be describing those properly enslaved – not those who simply worked for the tyrant, carrying out his bidding. Yet Rayfield is writing about Stalin’s Hangmen, and one would assume that the ‘Knecht’ he alludes to was not a true slave, but represented any one of the despot’s secret police chiefs. (I would have used ‘lackey’, not ‘serf’, to suggest any of the minions who carried out the dictator’s orders.) It is Rayfield, moreover, not Morgenstern, who introduces the notion of ‘working for the tyrant’ rather than just ‘being the tyrant’s slave’. Thus why Rayfield would condemn Morgenstern’s slaves, or why, if he truly meant those who worked for the tyrant directly, Stalin’s hirelings should be considered more ‘disgraceful’, or worthy of abuse, than Stalin himself is not clear. It is all an eccentric and perplexing muddle to me.

Resistance by Halik Kochanski

I detect a competition between the epic new history of an era or event and the minimalist approach. Thus the phenomenon of Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia, limiting an analysis of an enormous entity in space and time to 194 pages (which I have not yet read), competes for media coverage with Halik Kochanski’s monumental account of the underground movements against Hitler, Resistance, running at 960 pages, which I did complete a few weeks ago. In attempting to gain the attention of the critics and the reading public, one would imagine that the former would have a distinct advantage. Yet how could such an abbreviated work, if bringing a fresh revisionist message, deliver the argument convincingly if it lacked a host of supporting detail, and a wealth of references? On the other hand, can any single academic do justice to the scope of such a multifarious and international cause as that of anti-fascist resistance, which would surely merit an encyclopedia?

My preference these days is for neither option. The amount of material that is available to write a comprehensive history of some select subject, performing justice to the social, political, military and intelligence aspects, using archival material, authorized histories, and memoirs and biographies, demands that the period and geography covered be highly localized. Thus John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940 has more appeal than, say, Antony Beevor’s Second World War (which is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read). That is the approach I have taken in writing my analyses of SOE and the Prosper disaster, or the complications of Gouzenko’s defection and revelations. Any encyclopedic approach is bound to leave several stones unturned, and the creatures that hide beneath them unexamined.

Kochanski’s work is an extraordinary achievement, yet the nature of her sources is both a strength and a weakness. This book appears to have arisen from nowhere, with Kochanski’s 2012 account of the Poles at war, The Eagle Unbowed, hardly indicative of the massive scope of the research that propelled this volume. Her bibliography lists almost eight hundred items (I assume that she read them all herself), but the works are almost exclusively publications in English (with a few Polish and French volumes and articles thrown in), and many of them are memoirs and biographies of dubious reliability. For example, I counted at least three bearing the sub-title of ‘The True Story of. . . .’, when they are manifestly not such. There is no original primary archival material listed, and nothing from the German – where one might expect some useful insights on the Nazi approach to handling resistance to be found. Thus, without a directional methodology explaining why some sources should be trusted, the reliability of Kochanski’s narrative and judgments must remain an open question.

The scope of Kochanski’s study is the nature of resistance in all the European countries occupied by the Germans, and thus excludes Germany itself, and Austria. The subtitle of the book is The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945, which would tend to suggest that native resistance should very much have been in its focus. In commenting on this choice, Kochanski makes the surprising observation that there was nothing in those countries to resist, as ‘much of the German opposition to Hitler was not anti-German and did not want Germany to lose the war’. This seems to me an oversimplification, and an error of judgment, since it ignores multiple aspects of German resistance, including the broad plots inside the Wehrmacht and the Abwehr, the White Rose faction, and the Communist opposition that included the Rote Kapelle.

In 1994, Anton Gill published a very respectable book titled An Honourable Defeat: Resistance Against Hitler, 1939-1945, which covered civil and military opposition to the Führer. The appearance of that book would tend to confirm that there is an important tale to be told. True, the nature of such resistance was for the most part different, as it involved minimal sabotage, and hardly any guerrilla warfare. The story is nevertheless important since, if the military conspirators had spent less time plotting, and acted more decisively, they could have caused the whole ghastly edifice to come crashing down, and nullified the need for resistance elsewhere. Moreover, the Allies did try to infiltrate agents into German/Austrian territory with the goal of fomenting and exploiting local antagonisms, and such exploits constitute an important part of the overall history.

In fact the whole role of Communists in the Resistance across all of Europe, especially in France and Italy, and especially the way that Stalin insisted on controlling their activities, merits far more attention than Kochanski is prepared to allocate to this vexing subject. Communists were generally much more committed, and unconcerned about reprisals. Their activities, strangely enough, embarrassed both the Britain and the USA, as well as Stalin himself, who did not want premature uprisings in countries that he was not going to control, lest the Lend-Lease programs be jeopardized. The Foreign Office misjudged Stalin completely, and was manipulated by him. Britain’s role in appeasing its autocratic ally, and the misguided way in which it found itself arming Stalin’s servants in contravention of the desires of the relevant governments-in-exile, is almost completely overlooked by Kochanski.

As an encyclopedic survey of the resistance movements, Resistance will act as a splendid (but somewhat heavy) vade-mecum. It gathers a host of fascinating accounts of the efforts in each country for the general populace to come to grips with the presence of Nazi occupation forces. Circumstances in each territory were different, because of German attitudes, the culture of the country, and the nature of its terrain. I learned a multitude of new facts about the mistakes, tragedies and ironies of the conflict. For instance, in 1953, when twenty-one members of the SS Das Reich regiment were put on trial for the massacre at Oradour, it was discovered that fourteen of them were Frenchmen from Alsace, conscripted and fighting to protect their families back home. In 1942 the native Rinnan gang in Norway successfully infiltrated intelligence and resistance groups in the Trondheim region, leading to the execution of about a hundred resisters and SOE agents. As late as November 1944 (when the Warsaw Uprising was essentially over), Stalin still refused to allow the RAF to conduct operations to Warsaw over Soviet territory, even though he had recently encouraged the British to use Soviet bases in northern Russia to launch bombing-attacks on the battleship Tirpitz.

Yet in trying to provide an integrative account of how resistance unfolded, and how the Nazis reacted to it, Kochanski makes too many errors, and fails to follow up her individual observations with a series of patterns. It is a work of painstaking analysis, but of little imaginative synthesis. She does not understand the organization of SOE, MI5 and MI6, and how they interacted. Similarly, she does not distinguish between the Gestapo and the Abwehr in their rival domain and missions in France, or delineate the rivalries and squabbles that characterized their relationship. She similarly does not collect her multiple accounts of SOE’s exploitation of local resistance groups in France, Italy and Greece as a ploy to please Stalin, and to distract German attention from the Normandy landings, often with fatal results, into a coherent narrative. She likewise does not explore fully the way that resistance groups often exploited SOE with their relentless demands for weapons and money: SOE was an organization encouraging sabotage, not armed revolt. She hints at betrayal, but fails to grasp the bull by the horns. In the areas where I have studied the archival material (and the often deceptive memoirs) with some diligence, I found her history seriously wanting, and thus had doubts about the events with which I am not so familiar. On the other hand, I found her re-appraisal of the abuse of Mihailović, and the shady transfer of British support to Tito, a fine piece of revisionist writing.

Her overall assessment of SOE is very weak, merely reflecting some misty-eyed reminiscences of those who would like to see it in an exclusively positive light, and highlighting the opinion of its internal historian, William Mackenzie. The fact was that most European citizens living under the Nazi yoke did not want to see their country ‘set ablaze’, and the cruel reprisals that frequently followed were often indiscriminate and utterly demoralising. The assassination of Heydrich in Prague, and the horrendous reprisals that occurred thereafter, effectively quashed Czech resistance for good. The acquiescence and acceptance of subjugation that many pursued was not a sign of appeasement and treachery, but simply reflected a desire to survive, and no one who did not live through such times can comfortably judge behaviour that may have seemed dishonorable in retrospect. Kochanski several times observes how partisan groups spent more of their energies fighting each other rather than the Germans, but does not elevate these phenomena into any fresh conclusions. It is all very well to justify SOE retroactively on its delivery of intelligence instead of causing mayhem, but there existed other mechanisms  – more discreet – for gathering such information.

One whole aspect of resistance that Kochanski overlooks is the strategy of the occupiers. What did the Germans expect when they invaded a country, and did they adapt their tactics to the circumstances and reactions of the local populace? How did the character and stature of the respective Governor, and his policies, affect the dynamics of resistance? What effect did a royal family in place (as in Denmark and Belgium) have on the conflicts between the occupier and the occupied? It is poignant that, in Ukraine, and in the Baltic states, the Nazis were initially welcomed by many as liberators from the hated Communists, but the monstrosities of the execution squads against the Jews, and the attitudes of the Germans to ‘sub-human’ Slavs, soon showed that the invaders were as odious as the Bolsheviks. In Norway, on the other hand, where the Germans considered the natives as part of the favoured Nordic race, the attitude was far more indulgent, and positive, until the Gestapo concluded that they were generally hated as they were elsewhere. Even if fierce reprisals – demanded by Hitler – partially discouraged further subversion for a while (and that was a bitter source of controversy in Norway), at some stage the SS (Schutzstaffel) should have realized that more intensive terror would be self-defeating. Yet the brutalities of the Wehrmacht and the SS continued – sometimes out of sheer anger and frustration – in France, Italy and Greece, even when the outcome of the war was certain, and individual barbarities could be traced and be punished.

Like most books I read these days, Kochanski’s work could have benefitted from some tighter editing. Far too many statements are made in the passive voice, so that the source of claims is unverifiable, or the reader is uncertain who is making the judgment. She has an irritating habit of misplacing ‘only’, with the result that it does not correctly qualify the intended phrase. Her deployment of terms to describe the various resistance groups is imprecise: for instance, youths fearing conscription by the Germans who run to the woods do not suddenly become ‘maquis’. Thus, in summary, a noble and impressive work, but by no means definitive, with many opportunities missed. Maybe Kochanski did not feel up to the task of taking on what could turn out to be a controversial re-assessment of the contributions to the victory over the Axis powers of SOE and the resistance movements it tried to abet.

Surviving Katyn by Jane Rogoyska

If you read only one of the books I have reviewed this month, it should be Jane Rogoyska’s Surviving Katyn. It is a brilliantly researched and beautifully written account of one of the major examples of the Soviet Union’s brutality and mendacity –  the murder of thousands of Polish officers and professional men at Katyn Forest in 1940, and the subsequent cover-up and denial after the Germans discovered the scene of the butchery in 1943. The deceit, and the hunting down and elimination of many of the witnesses, carried on until the fall of the Soviet Union, when in 1990 Gorbachev faced the inevitable truth. The shameless refusal by the British and American authorities to accept the evidence, because Stalin was an ally, and his ‘good will’ was necessary to secure the defeat of the Nazis, continued through the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, and throughout the Cold War, even after Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes.

The Katyn Massacre

It is difficult to determine what qualified and equipped Ms. Rogoyska to execute this project in such a polished fashion. Her Wikipedia entry indicates that her grandfather escaped from Poland to England at the start of World War II, and that his son married an Englishwoman – who bizarrely remains anonymous, even on the author’s own website. Rogoyska is described as a British writer ‘of Polish origin’, although why the matrilineal side of her ancestry should be diminished in favour of the surname she carries is not clear. Moreover, while she studied Modern Languages at Cambridge, we learn that she did not learn Polish until adulthood, which fact makes her close analysis of so much Polish and Russian archival material even more remarkable. Her career has been in film, with no evident experience or training in writing history therefore evident.

Yet her account is utterly painstaking, methodical and carefully dispassionate. She lets the facts speak for themselves, and is sure of judgment when the obvious speculations have to be made. For the lesson of Katyn are still having to be re-learned. Despite the acknowledgment of the responsibility for the massacres, and subsequent cover-up, made by Putin himself, when he attended a memorial event for the victims in 2010, he has been clamping down on the Pamyat (‘Memory’) organization that tries to keep the records of Soviet atrocities alive and available, and has been promoting a twisted image of Stalin as a symbol of a Russia of greater days.

I wrote about Katyn in my post from this summer (http://www.coldspur.com/summer-2022-round-up/), when I reviewed Jozef Czapski’s Inhuman Land, and thus refer readers to it for a brief synopsis of what happened. Rogoyska weaves Czapski’s story into her account, focusing very sharply on the few reminiscences of those who were exempted, or allowed to escape, from the three camps where the Poles were incarcerated. While the outcome is clear, the struggles of the survivors to discover how thousands of their comrades could have disappeared without trace is poignant and wrenching. Yet Beria, the head of the NKVD, himself gave a colossal hint when he admitted in October 1940 to General Sygmunt Berlinger, a Polish communist sympathizer, and others, who had been invited to discuss the possible organization of a Polish division to fight the Germans, that ‘we made a big mistake’.

The reason for that characterization of the massacre is not clear, and perhaps never will be so. After all, the deaths of a few thousand Poles were not remarkable numerically, given that Stalin’s security organizations had been killing ‘enemies of the people’, and anyone who even potentially opposed Communist orthodoxy, in their millions. Prisoners of war received abominable treatment – both by the Soviets and the Germans, but these Poles were sequestered in more comfortable conditions than regular captives. Thus Beria’s brief admission could have meant several things: 1) we should never have killed so many Polish intelligentsia and officers, as we were bound to be found out eventually; 2) we should not have killed persons who might have been useful in the fight against Hitler when the inevitable invasion of the Soviet Union occurred (remember, Germany and the Soviet Union were allies when the massacres took place): 3) we should have performed a much better job of concealing the graves, so that they would never be discovered by any invading army. Astoundingly, when the Poles were held at the three camps of Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov, two of these contingents were moved in a westward direction to their places of execution – towards Poland and Germany – rather than being transported to the depths of Siberia where the evidence of their demise might have been better concealed.

The fact that Beria was ruthless, and may have recommended the decision to execute the Poles to Stalin, rather than being encouraged or instructed by the dictator to pursue it, and that he made this statement to a Pole, suggests to me that explanation number 2 is the most likely. Yet the evolution of the cover-up indicates that he and his associates believed that it was absolutely essential to blame the Germans for the killings, to falsify the evidence in the graves to suggest the misdeeds were performed later, and to exploit the known reputation of the Nazis for mass executions to present themselves as innocent. (I would point out that, over the course of two days in September, 1941, the Germans, assisted by Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 33,771 Jews at the ravine of Babi Yar, outside Kyiv.) And it worked. The German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had to admit that he had been outwitted. And the Soviet propaganda machine single-mindedly continued to promote the lie for decades afterwards.

What fascinates and appalls me is the craven response of Churchill, Eden, and other politicians, and the way that the Polish government-in-exile was treated with disdain while Stalin was appeased. One can perhaps understand a certain caution and reticence to push the point home in 1943, when the war still had to be won, and Stalin’s full support to turn the Germans back was essential. The subsequent avoidance of the issue, however, symptomatic of the policy of appeasement of Stalin that the Foreign Office pursued, in the belief that if he were treated like an English gentleman he would start to behave like one, is utterly reprehensible. One notable member of the Foreign Office, Sir Owen O’Malley, who was British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, was critical of such subservience and neglect of the truth, but his voice was suppressed and overruled.

All this (or most of this) Rogoyska covers with clarity and style. I do not believe she has any spectacular new revelations in her story, but it is important that the whole saga is encapsulated in one book. Moreover, I learned much in a domain close to my interests – namely the vicious retribution that the Soviet machine exacted on those who might embarrass it. Several of the Poles who escaped changed their names, and went into hiding. One Soviet witness of the executions, Ivan Krivovertsov, who had cooperated with the German investigation, feared for his life, and managed to escape to England, assuming the pseudonym Mikhail Loboda. (A photograph of him being interviewed by the Red Cross representatives in 1943 appears in the book.) He was found hanged in Somerset in 1947. As Rogoyska cautiously writes: “It is possible, although not verifiable, that the ‘suicide’ was the work of the KGB.”

In the past decade, President Putin has severely regressed from his earlier dignified stance. Rogoyska could have referred to incidents in the forest of Sandarmokh, in Karelia, near the Finnish border, where a local citizen, Yuri Dmitrev, has been persecuted for discovering burial mounds of political prisoners executed by Stalin’s secret police. A group sponsored by the Military Historical Society, ‘a state-funded organization notorious for its nationalist take on Russian history’ (as the New York Times characterized it in an article dated April 27, 2020) interfered with the excavations to make it seem that some of the victims were Soviet soldiers executed by the Finns in World War II. Anatoli Razumov, director of the Center for Recovered Names in St. Petersburg, was quoted as saying: “The same tactics are being used to muddle the history of Russia’s most infamous killing-ground. Katyn Forest. . . .”. Dmitrev was convicted of a false paedophilia charge, and resides in jail: the curator of the local museum, who had supported Dmitrev, was arrested on a similar charge, and soon after died in prison hospital ‘from an unspecified illness’. Stalinism lives.

In conclusion, I have just read an article in the December issue of The Atlantic, ‘How Germany Remembers the Holocaust’, by Clint Smith. It is a thoughtful and moving account of how modern Germans come to terms with the atrocities, and Smith makes analogies with the persecution of Native Americans, with the enslavement of Africans, and with the German genocide in Namibia. Not once, however, does he make any reference to the mass murders of Communism, of the tyrannies of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Maybe he regards the category of victim, or the level of complicity by the people, or the factor of geography, differently; maybe he has simply ‘forgotten’ the Liquidation of the Kulaks, the Holodomor, the Great Terror and the Gulags: one cannot discern. His article concludes: “It is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all.” Indeed: it is Pamyat, ‘Memory’, that Putin is attempting to destroy.

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6 Comments

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6 Responses to An Armful of History Books

  1. With regards to Katyn I did read an explanation somewhere that the decision was made to prop up the lies about the responsibility for Katyn for reasons of social cohesion. That having spent years extolling the virtues of Uncle Joe and the heroic nature of The Red Army it would be too sudden a reversal of the wartime propaganda to tell the truth. I have a suspicion that as and when such a policy was deliberately formulated (ie to diseemble about Katyn) that one or tother of the Cambridge Spies would have had a hand in this. It would be just the sort of thing that a committed ideological communist buried within the Foreign Office establishment would happily have turned his or her hand to. But I am speculating here not giving you any actual proof I’m afraid…

    • coldspur

      Thank you, David.
      I have read claims that Philby somehow helped suppress the facts about Katyn, but they are unconvincing. It appears from the evidence that Churchill immediately suspected that the Soviets were responsible, but he was at that time so intimidated by Stalin over his (WSC’s) woeful mismanagement of the’Second Front’ commitments that he chose to suppress the truth himself.

  2. Richard Learie

    Dear Tony
    I too have read the David Burke book and enjoyed it as an addition to the information out there on the Kuczynski Network. How remiss of him to ignore your recent discoveries about Sonya’s ability to reach the UK from Switzerland! If he doesn’t agree he could explain why.
    And thanks, Tony, for “calling a spade a spade”. People who supported Stalin, even after it became clear what a monster he was, were simply wrong and, basically, are monsters themselves. No need for nuances. If Stalinism had taken over Western Europe they might realise how wrong they were, but I fear that even then, they would be too stubborn to understand or care.

  3. coldspur

    Good to hear from you again, Richard! Thanks for your moral support.

  4. Nigel Aplatts

    Dear Tony,
    Your reference to A J P Taylor and the perverse comment about Lenin just serves to remind us of Taylor the self regarding showman. Of course he was the first “TV historian” and his talks were spell binding but throughout there was a need to take a contrarian or even silly view just to cause a stir. His Oxford volume on English history 1914-45 was a remarkable achievement but, as I recall, the single matter that was referred to by all reviewers was the footnote that pointed out that King George V had his trousers pressed with the crease down the side. Taylor was always the man for bathos.
    Mention of Lenin reminds me that I have often attributed my career as an accountant to the writings of Lenin (you have probably heard me say this). Lenin pointed out that after the revolution and the resultant withering away of parties, the workers’ paradise would still require people to produce the figures – for a bourgeois arts graduate in 1967 this looked a better bet than most other career opportunities! You may or probably may not believe this to be my motivation but at least it gave some meaning to the political thought paper in finals.
    By the way, thinking back to Oxford days and Taylor – I suspect that his chippiness was encouraged by a lifetime regret that he was not a Balliol man and had to make do with Oriel (we all have our cross to bear).
    All good wishes,
    Nigel

  5. coldspur

    Excellent, Nigel! Thanks.

    Yes, it was probably a safer job around the Kremlin producing the figures – unless, of course, you were in the Census Bureau, and reflected famines and purges in your numbers, and were accordingly shot for shoddy work.

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