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Arthur Ransome: Beloved Children's Author was a noted fan of the Lake District, and also Bolshevik Revolutionaries
August 13, 2009 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Yet another 20th century English author in bed with the communists? Literally, in this case - Arthur Ransome might be best known for his 'Swallows & Amazons' books about children sailing in the idyllic Lake District, but before all that, he left his first wife (and a libel case that got him mixed up with Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas) to study fairy tales in Russia... only there he fell in love with Leon Trotsky's private secretary, ended up working for the Bolsheviks and also MI6.

She - Evgenia Shelepina - later became his wife, but not before he'd witnessed the Bolshevik revolution, and fled Russia with a Bolshevik diplomatic passport and a satchel stuffed full of millions of roubles. According to Roland Chambers, author of a new bio of Ransome, when he pitched up at the British Embassy in Sweden, the British Intelligence community were extremely suspicious of him. Didn't stop them hiring him to work for MI6, even though they knew he retained is communist sympathies:

"Recruited to MI6 in 1918, he submitted reports to the British head of station in eastern Europe, while simultaneously advising the Bolshevik secret police on British foreign policy. Revealing a dizzying ability to adapt himself to the nearest power, he insisted, nevertheless, that he had retained absolute objectivity. When Sir Basil Thomson, head of Special Branch, asked him what his politics were, Ransome answered, ‘Fishing’."

You can hear Chambers talking about the book (and Ransome talking about fishing) on Radio 4's Open Book (iPlayer link, outside UK YMMV): Chambers starts 18 minutes in. Was Ransome a double agent? Well that depends: short answer, Chambers says, is yes.

No surprise, given the chaos of his early life, that Ransome went on to write children's books set in a very orderly world - although one where small groups do fight each other for territory and power.
posted by Sifter (35 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating post.
Must read
and/or hunt up the reviews In TLS and LRB.

Thanks
posted by jan murray at 4:08 PM on August 13, 2009


Swallows and Amazons forever!
posted by Helga-woo at 4:13 PM on August 13, 2009


Oh god, I was in the Lake District a year ago with my ex's father as he took me around to the locations where they shot the film version of Swallow and Amazons he produced.

I don't care about the communism, I guess is what I'm saying. I just want to be back in the Lake District, possibly the most beautiful place on earth.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:52 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks, I'll have to look for the book.
posted by languagehat at 4:53 PM on August 13, 2009


On non-preview: I find it hard to understand people who "don't care about the communism." I don't care how charming his kid's books are, the guy did his best to help establish one of the most brutal regimes the world has seen. If there were a hell, he'd be in the lower depths.
posted by languagehat at 4:55 PM on August 13, 2009


Languagehat: all I was saying was that my love for the Lake District brought back overpowering nostalgic memories. Ransome himself doesn't mean all that much to me, so as bad as all of this is, it didn't really floor me.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:58 PM on August 13, 2009


On non-preview: I find it hard to understand people who "don't care about the communism." I don't care how charming his kid's books are, the guy did his best to help establish one of the most brutal regimes the world has seen. If there were a hell, he'd be in the lower depths.

well, between Rule Britannia! and the Bolsheviks it's damned if you do, damned if you don't...
posted by geos at 5:08 PM on August 13, 2009


Languagehat - Haven't read the book, but the FT's review suggests a somewhat confused man as much as anything else.

But, as you say - we'll have to read the it.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:12 PM on August 13, 2009


Quite right, languagehat. Ransome should have foreseen Stalin and you are correct to damn him to hell for not doing so. All the more so as none of the other regimes in the world at the time were even remotely brutal.
posted by motty at 5:19 PM on August 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Interested to read the book; didn't know any of this about Ransome. I do love the books and can't just stop having affection for them; one of the things I like about them is that Ransome is a very good advocate for children having huge amounts of freedom to roam about. I vividly remember in Swallows and Amazons the kids writing for permission to go sailing by themselves, and the father wiring back "better drowned than duffers; if not duffers won't drown." I always thought that this would be my motto if I ever had kids.

As for the communist stuff, I doubt if Ransome ever sat down and thought "I know! I want to help create a brutal, murderous regime!" Because, you know, people don't necessarily foresee the horrors that lie ahead. A lot of people once thought that communism was a good idea.
posted by OolooKitty at 5:21 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Love anything about erudite Brit commies. Thanks for the post.
posted by Berry at 5:38 PM on August 13, 2009


Interested in anything about erudite Brit Commies--this is fascinating.
posted by Berry at 5:40 PM on August 13, 2009


I've no idea whether he was a communist or not, but thanks for reminding me I need to pick up some copies of the Swallows and Amazons for the child.
Hopefully I can find some editions where the illustrations and maps aren't squished into unreadability.

OolooKitty -
That's an excellent philosophy for raising kids. Also keep in mind:
"When a thing's done, it's done, and if it's not done right, do it differently next time."
posted by madajb at 5:57 PM on August 13, 2009


Quite right, languagehat. Ransome should have foreseen Stalin and you are correct to damn him to hell for not doing so.

"It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed. "

"The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses. "

"When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward - or go back. He who now talks about the "freedom of the press" goes backward, and halts our headlong course towards Socialism. "

"Dictatorship of the proletariat, the only consistently revolutionary class, is necessary to overthrow the bourgeoisie and repel its attempts at counter-revolution. The question of proletarian dictatorship is of such overriding importance that he who denies the need for such dictatorship, or recognises it only in words, cannot he a member of the Social-Democratic Party."

"There are at present 300,000 bourgeois in the Crimea. These are a source of future profiteering, espionage and every kind of aid to the capitalists. However, we are not afraid of them. We say that we shall take and distribute them, make them submit, and assimilate them. "

"Am sure that the crushing of the Kazan Czechs and whiteguards, as well as of the kulak extortioners supporting them, will be exemplarily ruthless."

"It is obvious that a whiteguard insurrection is being prepared in Nizhni. You must strain every effort, appoint three men will) dictatorial powers (yourself, Markin and one other), organise immediately mass terror, shoot and deport the hundreds of prostitutes who are making drunkards of the soldiers, former officers and the like. "


Yeah, I can see how the problem was Stalin. Clearly it would have all been a heavenly utopia but for Stalin.
posted by rodgerd at 6:36 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Clearly it would have all been a heavenly utopia but for Stalin

Rather like the heavenly utopia that existed under the Tsars... /snark

I loved loved loved the Swallows and Amazons books. Ransome created the character Nancy Blackett who at the time was an unusually strong and independent female character, and one who's been subject to much feminist analysis over the years.

There was some discussion of Ransom's involvement in the Revolution in the biography published by Hugh Borgan in 1984 and I think in the Rupert Hart-Davis biography which was published in 1976. It would be interesting to compare these to the new biography.

Thanks for a great post - I now need to ring my mother and check she's not chucked out my Swallows and Amazons collection.
posted by girlgenius at 7:01 PM on August 13, 2009


the guy did his best to help establish one of the most brutal regimes the world has seen.
...
A lot of people once thought that communism was a good idea.

Putting it into the context of the time is also helpful - a lot of people thought they were helping to replace one of the most brutal regimes in the world. Meet the new boss...
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:17 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


the guy did his best to help establish one of the most brutal regimes the world has seen

No, he did his best to help create what he hoped would be a more functional alternative to the horribly brutal regime Tsar.

As it turned out, it became another one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever seen, but I'm not sure how Ransome could have predicted that.

Also, the Swallows and Amazons books are about children playing around in boats. I don't have any issues with reading them because of Ransome's earlier politics any more than I have issues with reading Ezra Pound's Cantos despite his Fascism (the anti-Semitic bits gross me out, though). Hell, I'll read Montherlant, Nietzsche, and other balls-out misogynists!

Auden was wrong that time did not pardon Paul Claudel for writing well, but that was because Claudel's writing was actually a bit shit. In principle, I agree with Auden--if the work itself doesn't promote ideas I think are hateful, I don't do a litmus test on the author's entire life history of political sympathies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:10 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


"regime of the Tsar," I meant. Obviously, Claudel isn't the only shitty writer.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:10 PM on August 13, 2009


The Bolsheviks really were an extremely nasty bunch right from the beginning, and that Ransome supported them shouldn't be brushed off any more than we would brush off the political views of someone like Pound or Celine. It's true a lot of decent people thought communism was a good idea, but thinking that Lenin and his party were working to achieve anything like what that ideal implied is another matter.

I think there's a tendency even now among a lot of Western leftists to view the Bolsheviks as having had good intentions, and that the reason it all didn't work out was because they misunderstood human nature, or because the conditions weren't right for what they were trying to do in Russia at that time, or because Stalin corrupted everything. From the reading I've done on the Russian Revolution, this isn't true. rogerd's quotes illustrate it quite well- Tsarism was very bad, yes, but Leninism was worse. The Bolsheviks weren't even ruthless egalitarians, which I think is a common view of them- they were aggressively anti-egalitarian in pretty much every way that counted. They wasted no time at all in setting themselves up as, for all intents and purposes, the new aristocracy of the country, while the workers who were supposedly the new ruling class of society were subjected to a particularly ruthless brand of Taylorism, and the peasants had it much worse. Then, of course, there was the Cheka, which was set up almost immediately after the Bolsheviks took power - on that note, one thing which is often forgotten (as it didn't fit that well into Cold War narratives) is that non-Bolshevik leftists were treated by the Bolsheviks as enemies of the revolution, and therefore were imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the Cheka in great numbers. All of this was well before Stalin took over.

In my opinon, there is no moral difference between Marxism-Leninism and fascism, and as I don't think most here would have a problem with condemning someone who worked to bring Mussolini to power to the lower depths of hell, I pretty much agree with languagehat's view on this- particularly seeing as how the "new bio" link describes Ransome as an "uncritical apologist for the Bolshevik regime" who "denied the Red Terror." Many decent people believed what the Bolsheviks said about themselves for a while- even Emma Goldman didn't write them off until the early 20s- but Ransome, by the sound of it, went well beyond that. (In case it needs to be said, though- none of this means he was a bad author or that he shouldn't be read, IMO.)
posted by a louis wain cat at 8:23 PM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wait, Arthur Ransome's secret blackguardly occupation was as a Bolshevik sympathizer? Not a pirate?

That seems wrong.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:33 PM on August 13, 2009


I hate to further obscure a lovely, illuminating post with a meta-political argument, but this statement calls for it:

Languagehat - Haven't read the book, but the FT's review suggests a somewhat confused man as much as anything else.

It's funny how, in the stunning glow of capitalism's triumph, the victors are unwilling to admit that any such thing as Communists or socialists existed in the era of communism. Brecht is politically de-toothed, his minor rebellions against the DDR's wrongheaded aesthetic autocrats painted as a summary rejection of Marxism-Leninism; John Reed turned from ardent advocate of international revolution to a philandering playboy adventurer in the popular imagination.

I hate a job half-done. While we're at it, let's go all the way:

George Bernard Shaw wasn't a socialist - his beard just tricked him into thinking he was!

Dave Von Ronk never marched with IWW - he just got lost on the way to Cafe Wah?!

Woody Guthrie
didn't fingerpick for no Big Union -- he was hobo on de rails!

Silly 'ol Nina Hartley weren't no Red - she just liked the ensemble!

It's just poor sportsmanship from the capitalist bunch, leaving us with our monsters and denying us our heroes.

And I won't even get into the fallacious logic behind equating "communism" with "confusion"!
posted by ford and the prefects at 8:47 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nina Hartley is a communist?

Maybe I would have known that if I'd watched more than the first seven minutes of her movies.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:22 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it's easy to forget that a lot of the appeal of the Russian revolution overseas wasn't so much what non-Russians thought it would mean for Russia, but that they'd just seen the logic of the competing capitalist powers lead to the horrendous meat-grinder of World War One. It was seen as heralding an alternative to nationalism and the mechanised war state. Which is to say nothing of the brutalities of empire that an Englishman might well be well aware of, or that Britain in the years 1910-1914 had been through a period on unprecedented and militant, even revolutionary, working-class revolt.
Within Russia itself, former anarchists like Serge, later to be a notable left critic of the regime, had his period as its apologist.
posted by Abiezer at 9:49 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah I loved his books as a kid, totally agree with all sentiments about the lake district, if you ever come to Britain the lake district is a must, if it does not evoke poetry in your soul, you do not possess one.

BTW any author who has one of the main characters in their books called 'titty' can't be all bad.
posted by dollyknot at 1:46 AM on August 14, 2009


If the BBC iPlayer link doesn't work, you can listen to the author in the Guardian podcast which is just an MP3 download: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2009/aug/13/roland-chambers-arthur-ransome-roland-chambers
posted by Sifter at 4:52 AM on August 14, 2009


I think some may be exaggerating the practical support he gave Bolshevism. He was in Russia as a journalist: getting close to the leaders was his job.

I'm not quite sure what "advising the Bolshevik secret police on British foreign policy" is supposed to mean. Ransome had no official position: his knowledge could only have been that of any well-informed citizen. And why would the "secret police" in particular be interested in British foreign policy? Surely there'd be a separate department for foreign affairs.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:22 AM on August 14, 2009


why would the "secret police" in particular be interested in British foreign policy?
Well, we did send a military force to intervene - related to preparations for that, perhaps? More an intelligence than diplomacy matter.
posted by Abiezer at 5:50 AM on August 14, 2009


I'm not quite sure what "advising the Bolshevik secret police on British foreign policy" is supposed to mean. Ransome had no official position: his knowledge could only have been that of any well-informed citizen. And why would the "secret police" in particular be interested in British foreign policy? Surely there'd be a separate department for foreign affairs.

Well, given the Lockhart Plot, I'd say the Cheka would be very interested indeed.
posted by nasreddin at 7:09 AM on August 14, 2009


I'm more annoyed that he shacked up with the SIS outside of something like the battle against fascism. Also, based on the publisher's blurb on their site, I'm not sure what's so apologetic about comparing Lenin to Cromwell (I'd say he was better than Cromwell, in a similar meaningless statement).
posted by Gnatcho at 12:00 PM on August 14, 2009


> Quite right, languagehat. Ransome should have foreseen Stalin and you are correct to damn him to hell for not doing so. All the more so as none of the other regimes in the world at the time were even remotely brutal.
posted by motty at 8:19 PM on August 13 [7 favorites +] [!]


Interesting: at least 7 people besides yourself are under the delusion that Bolshevism did not become a bad thing until "Stalin" (whatever you mean by that—he was a major player from 1917 on). I could give you a reading list to educate yourself on the history of the movement, from its murderous "expropriations" long before the Revolution to Lenin's memos demanding mass murder, but I suspect it would be wasted effort.

> A lot of people once thought that communism was a good idea.

Yes, and I can understand that from foreigners who didn't really know what was going on in Russia. There was a lot of misinformation and confusion. But Ransome had been there for years; he palled around with Karl Radek; he knew what was going on. I think some people see him as a gentle, befuddled children's-book author who happened one day to wander through Russia in a daze, much like Wodehouse wandering through Nazi Germany and saying silly things. This guy was not like that at all.

> In principle, I agree with Auden--if the work itself doesn't promote ideas I think are hateful, I don't do a litmus test on the author's entire life history of political sympathies.

Me too (I love that poem and quote that bit a lot), and I'm not saying anything about his kids' books, which I haven't read. They may well be brilliant and deserving of all the accolades. I'm just saying I have little respect for someone who saw Bolshevism in action, as he did, and gave it material aid. "The tsar was bad too" is not an excuse (for one thing, the Bolsheviks didn't overthrow the tsar, they overthrew the relatively democratic Provisional Government, a fact often conveniently forgotten).
posted by languagehat at 4:07 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


My dear languagehat, you appear to be conflating communism in general with Bolshevism specifically. If your reading list does the same, I suggest that perhaps you expand it, and would agree that recommending such a reading list to others was wasted effort.

I would also suggest that there is no need for rudeness.
posted by motty at 6:38 PM on August 14, 2009


My dear motty, we are not talking about "communism in general," we are talking about Bolshevism specifically, unless you wandered in from some other thread in which some other variety of "communism" is being discussed. And where exactly was I rude? Unless you consider my objection to people defending Bolshevism to be rude, in which case I guess I'm guilty as charged. Also, you don't seem to consider your own rather simpleminded sarcasm ("Quite right, languagehat. Ransome should have foreseen Stalin ...") to be rude. I guess we all have different definitions.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 AM on August 15, 2009


My apologies, languagehat, if you took my rather simpleminded sarcasm as rudeness; this perhaps is the same kind of unintentional rudeness as your suggestion that providing a reading list would be wasted effort.

It is possible that I misunderstood you when you wrote the following:

I find it hard to understand people who "don't care about the communism." I don't care how charming his kid's books are, the guy did his best to help establish one of the most brutal regimes the world has seen.

Reading back I can see how you can have considered this to be a statement about Bolshevism specifically. However, given the international dimension of the various left wing parties of the era, you can see that it could equally be construed as a more general statement about communism.

More light on Ransome's specific views on Bolshevism is shed here, where the British consul in Moscow is quoted as saying of Ransome: The appearance of working against us is due to his friendship with the Bolshevik leaders, not by any means to any sympathy with the regime, which the Terror has made him detest.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for socialists and communists of the time still to have held positions both broadly sympathetic to the Russian left and its underlying egalitarian utopian ideals yet thoroughly opposed to the Terror.
posted by motty at 9:15 AM on August 15, 2009


> Reading back I can see how you can have considered this to be a statement about Bolshevism specifically.

Thank you, although "this is" would be more accurate than "you can have considered this to be." We were talking about Ransome's support for the Bolshevik government, not "the international dimension of the various left wing parties of the era."

> I think it is perfectly reasonable for socialists and communists of the time still to have held positions both broadly sympathetic to the Russian left and its underlying egalitarian utopian ideals yet thoroughly opposed to the Terror.

True enough if by "the Russian left" you mean, say, the Mensheviks and SRs, but sadly they'd almost all been exterminated or exiled by Lenin and his gang. Sadly as well, hardly any non-Russian "socialists and communists of the time" gave a damn about them, since they were infatuated with "actually existing socialism" as presented by the Kremlin Light & Magic Show. To read the glowing reports of credulous Westerners taken for a tour is to be filled with disgust.

At any rate, thanks for your civility, and I apologize for the reading-list crack.
posted by languagehat at 9:32 AM on August 15, 2009


"meta-political argument"?

Jesus.

Read the link.

"But it is a great shame that his planned history of the revolution was never completed, as even now there remains a muddiness about Ransome’s moral stance in relation to the Bolsheviks. Chambers suggests that, as a bohemian, Ransome was enraptured by their anarchy; as an Edwardian, he admired their industry. But in a letter to his mother he also described them as “a pigheaded, narrow-minded set of energetic lunatics”, and, one suspects, was baffled to find himself suddenly smitten by one."

A little more measured than the knee-slapping absurdities you listed. You may disagree, but as I said, needs must read the book before judging.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:15 AM on August 24, 2009


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