CHARLIE CONNELLY on the radical double life of beloved children’s author Arthur Ransome.
Few writers have evoked a more bucolic view of England than Arthur Ransome. In the dozen books that comprise the Swallows and Amazons series he conjured magical stories of endless school holidays spent camping, fishing and messing about in boats, exploring nature and making friendships that felt as if they would last forever. The world was reduced to as far as you could range and still be back in time for tea, returning home flushed with stories and the prickly heat of a summer’s day.
In dust jacket photographs the stories’ author looked like a favourite uncle, round spectacles framing kindly eyes above a walrus moustache that managed to stay just the right side of preposterous.
Yet two years before Swallows and Amazons was published an unnamed man had provided the British secret service with this account of an encounter with Ransome in, of all places, a Chinese prison.
“Arthur Ransome is a traitor,” began the typed statement. “He is undoubtedly a Communist and in the pay of the Moscow Secret Service.”
Describing how Ransome had visited him in a cell in Hankou where he was being held for unspecified reasons as China simmered on the brink of revolutionary violence, he said Ransome tried to convince him he was a British spy, “and that I could entrust him with any message I wanted him to pass on to the War Office”. The man “caught him out at his own game” and “threatened to use force if he didn’t leave the cell immediately”.
The idea that the avuncular figure behind some of the best-loved stories ever written could be caught up in a world of spies, double agents and tawdry encounters in Chinese prison cells seems ridiculous, but even if labelling him a traitor was pushing it there was far more to Arthur Ransome than the pictures of a slightly bewildered old gent might suggest.
Ransome spent a number of years in Russia around the time of the 1917 revolution, was friendly with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders and even married Leon Trotsky’s secretary. It’s a little like finding out Beatrix Potter was chummy with Stalin, or that Kim Il-sung sought out A.A. Milne’s opinions over a game of chess on the potential for revolution in Britain.
The story of Arthur Ransome and the Bolsheviks reads more like something out of Graham Greene than anything from the children’s canon. Spy, traitor, MI6 informant, war correspondent, double agent, confidant of some of the 20th century’s most significant figures, even gem smuggler, Ransome attracted labels, accusations and suspicions until he settled back in England in the late 1920s and commenced the second half of his life, living quietly in the Lake District writing books that would immortalise his name where it might have been scandalised.
How he came to be in Russia in the first place was a remarkable story. Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884, spending regular family holidays close to Coniston Water and attending school in Windermere before decamping to Rugby School. He studied chemistry at Yorkshire College but left after a year and moved to London to pursue a career as a writer. In 1907 he published his first substantial work, Bohemia in London, in which he examined the capital’s bohemian set, past and present, followed by literary biographies of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, the latter provoking an unsuccessful libel suit from Lord Alfred Douglas that would bankrupt Wilde’s former lover.
By 1913 Ransome was in poor health, a stomach ulcer exacerbated by the stress of the year-long libel process and a collapsed marriage. Something had to change so he moved to Russia, ostensibly, he said, to study folklore but also partly to put as much distance as possible between himself and his wife.
Ransome’s ill health and poor eyesight excused him from combat in the First World War but his writing, location and proficiency in the Russian language made him an ideal correspondent. He covered the conflict on the Russian front for the radical English newspaper the Daily News before moving after the war to the Manchester Guardian. If he’d arrived in Russia envisioning a peaceful life searching archives for fairy tales, instead he found himself caught up in two of the biggest political and social upheavals of the modern age: global war and the Russian Revolution.
“I got, I think I may say, as near as any foreigner who was not a communist could get to what was going on,” he wrote in the introduction to his book Six Weeks in Russia, published in 1919. He became close to Karl Radek, the Bolshevik regime’s vice-commissar for foreign affairs and gifted in the creation and dissemination of Bolshevik propaganda, close enough that the two men shared an apartment in the aftermath of the revolution.
He got to know Lenin, Trotsky and other architects of the Soviet Union, winning their confidence, playing them at chess, keeping them abreast of developments in Britain and filing his news reports back to London by telegram.
These bulletins are what first attracted the attention of the British authorities, jittery at the prospect of Bolshevik-style revolution at home and suspicious of how Ransome’s reports seemed a little too sympathetic towards the revolutionary government.
Ransome’s secret service file was opened to the public in the early 2000s (and interpreted to great effect by Roland Chambers in his excellent 2009 biography The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome) and makes fascinating reading if you’re a fan of Swallows and Amazons or not.
Ransome’s 1917 dispatches for the Daily News were “articles that were most detrimental as he frequently applauded the Bolshevist government and one was forced to the conclusion that he had probably become imbued with their sentiments himself”.
The following year he was recorded as “a keen supporter of Trotsky”, not to mention an “out and out Bolshevik” who was “working actively against this country”. By the end of 1918 however, the spooks were softening.
“It appeared that Ransome was quite loyal and willing to help the British by giving information,” reads the file, “and that the appearance he was working against us was due to his friendship with the Bolshevik leaders, not by any means to any sympathy with their regime.”
In March 1919, during the period covered in Six Weeks in Russia, it was concluded that Ransome “was not a Bolshevik, but that his interest in and association with the various Bolshevik leaders had always been literary rather than political”. It was also reported that he had only cultivated a relationship with the Soviet leadership at the request of the British chargé d’affaires in Russia, “and many of his articles were written in order that he not be compromised with the Bolshevik leaders”.
When the Manchester Guardian applied in 1919 for permission to send Ransome, briefly back in the UK, back to Russia as their new correspondent however, MI5 was so concerned it initially blocked the idea before eventually relenting. He wasn’t a fully-fledged communist, they decided, but as late as 1926 his file described him as “one who reports what he sees but doesn’t always see straight”.
Ransome’s file, with its verdict on his loyalties veering back and forth, sometimes in documents just a few days apart, gives the impression of a man much more enigmatic than he might otherwise have appeared.
“Yes, he was a double agent,” said biographer Chambers in 2009, who concluded that Ransome was recruited as a spy by the British in Stockholm in 1918. “He was paid by the Brits, supplied reports to them, and he advised [KGB forerunners] the Cheka on British foreign policy. That said, though, this wasn’t the Cold War and there’s no evidence he ever passed sensitive information to the Bolsheviks, or even that he had access to it. In Ransome’s eyes, he was always just a go-between only really ever serving his own interests.”
He was also in love. He’d met Evgenia Shelepina when she started work as Trotsky’s secretary in December 1917 and had obtained a censor’s approval stamp for an interview Ransome had conducted with her boss. The English writer was smitten and the pair would eventually marry in 1924, once Ransome had secured a divorce from his first wife.
Through Evgenia and Radek, Ransome was able to become close to the leaders of the revolution and provide some of the most evocative literary portraits of Lenin written in English, albeit wincingly starry-eyed.
“More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man” he wrote in Six Weeks in Russia on leaving a meeting with the Bolshevik leader, describing him as, “this little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another,” and “the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition”.
Ransome also described life as experienced by ordinary Russians. It’s easy to think of early-Bolshevik Moscow and Petrograd as entirely consumed by politics: firebrand orators on street corners addressing rapt crowds, rallies in every public space, the eyes of every citizen flashing with revolutionary fervour. Yet people were still trying to live ordinary lives, their rhythms and routines disrupted by food shortages and poverty, the crunching gear change of revolution exacerbating the fallout from the First World War.
There was still a thriving arts scene in Moscow with ticket touts a fixture outside theatres, concert halls and opera houses. In February 1919 Ransome attended a performance of Saint-Saens’ opera Samson et Delilah and was immediately struck by how the composition of the audience had changed. Gone was “the Moscow plutocracy of bald merchants” in tailcoats, in their place ordinary people in ordinary clothes, many of them clearly having come straight from work. Even among the orchestra, “the players of brass instruments had evidently been in regimental bands during the war and still retained their khaki-green tunics with a very mixed collection of trousers and breeches”.
Most of all, however, Ransome’s writing defended the Bolsheviks as the only regime capable of bringing order to chaos even if it meant press censorship, abuse of democracy and the mass killings of the Red Terror after the civil war. Whether he was a communist or not, whenever he and Evgenia left Russia it was on Kremlin-issued diplomatic visas and they carried money and precious stones destined for the Comintern to help fund revolutionary activities abroad.
Lenin’s death in 1924 saw Ransome’s Russophilic ardour begin to cool and he declined further foreign postings from the Manchester Guardian after that 1927 incident in a Chinese prison. Instead he settled with his wife in the Lake District to write the books that would make him famous. His dual lives at the heart of revolutionary Russia and as a genial, pipe-smoking author of idyllic children’s stories never crossed.
The closest his two lives came to meeting, in an incident that comes as near as any to encapsulating this most enigmatic of literary figures, was late one night at a remote, frozen border checkpoint between Russia and Sweden. When guards seemed reluctant to let Ransome pass he tutted impatiently and thrust a letter at them. It was in a language they didn’t understand but, looking at the high-quality paper, embossed letterhead and flamboyant signature, the border officials assumed Ransome to be a man of great importance and waved him through.
The letter was from the chief librarian at the London library enquiring after some books Ransome had borrowed that were now overdue.
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