Left to the wolves: Irish victims of Stalinist terror

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

Left to the wolves: Irish victims of Stalinist terror
Barry McLoughlin
(Irish Academic Press, hb e57.50, pb e29.50)
ISBN 9780716529149, 9780716529157

One of the things the Soviets did well was compiling and preserving records, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberalisation of access to its archives some brilliant studies have appeared on the ‘great terror’ unleashed after the assassination of Leningrad party leader Sergei Kirov in December 1934. The planning behind the arrests and the use of the tools of modern civilisation—the mass party, the legal process, personal files, police, telephones, railways—all in the name of people’s democracy and material utopia will forever rattle our confidence in human nature. How does one come to terms with the industrial scale of the calamity? Stalin remarked that the death of one man is a tragedy and the death of a million a statistic. Even the loss of one life can seem abstract when the victim is unknown and judicial murder is swaddled in layers of historical complexity and alien culture. This compelling account of the three known Irish victims takes us beyond the statistics and will be of special value to Irish readers in making a vast and complex phenomenon immediate, familiar and personal. It has, too, a wider significance. Having published on foreigners in Stalin’s Russia and on the terror, McLoughlin moves easily from the particular to the general, and offers sidelights on the many analytic questions about the terror—why it happened, how intimidated Soviet citizens were by the prevailing climate, the basis on which people were arrested, the extent to which a semblance of legality was observed and why, and whether any effective defence was open to suspects—as well as powerful descriptions of the fate of the three Irishmen.
The story of Patrick Breslin, Brian Goold-Verschoyle and Seán McAteer is told sequentially, in discrete biographies. They were quite different individuals, from contrasting social backgrounds and with their own personal takes on politics. That all were sometime Bolsheviks is a testimony to the broad appeal of communism in the 1920s and 1930s, and a reminder that Ireland has usually reflected the dominant global ideologies in some form or other.
Breslin, a precocious young Dubliner, was one of twenty Irishmen (and one Irishwoman) delegated to the International Lenin School in Moscow, the Comintern’s ‘cadre forge’. (On the Irish in the Lenin School see History Ireland, Winter 1999.) Though increasingly unhappy with Bolshevism, he chose to stay on in Moscow, marry a Russian and surrender his Irish citizenship. Without a foreign passport, he was at the mercy of a regime that was becoming paranoid about aliens.
Goold-Verschoyle was of Anglo-Irish stock from south-west Donegal. (For a fictional history of the family’s engagement with Irish and international politics see Dermot Bolger, The family on Paradise Pier (London, 2005)). Educated in an English public school, Goold-Verschoyle wanted to be a worker and serve the revolution. He joined the party, trained as a secret radio operator in Moscow, and acted as a minor spy in London. Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Goold-Verschoyle worked as a radio technician in Barcelona. Suspected of being a Trotskyite, for the Bolsheviks a catch-all term for any of their leftist critics, he was kidnapped and shipped to the Soviet Union.
McAteer was born near Dundalk and worked as a docker in Dublin. After diverse revolutionary adventures in the United States with the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or ‘Wobblies’), he returned to Ireland and, with Liam O’Flaherty and Jim Phelan, declared a ‘soviet republic’ in Dublin’s Rotunda in January 1922. Moving to Liverpool, he shot a man in a post-office raid, and fled to the Soviet Union in 1923. The Russians sent him to work in a seaman’s club in Odessa, and declined Big Jim Larkin’s request that he be made the representative of the Irish Worker League—the Irish section of the Comintern—in Moscow. He was arrested and shot as a spy in 1937. Young Jim Larkin was later informed by the Soviet Red Cross that he had disappeared during the Nazi occupation of Odessa.
With its exotic cast of revolutionaries, spies, criminals, secret policemen, informers, apparatchiks and femmes fatales, on a canvas stretching from the United States through Ireland, England, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Russia and China to the Ukraine, Left to the wolves could hardly fail to fascinate. It is a fascination mixed with despair at the cynicism of Stalin’s regime and the brutal destruction of people and of idealism. There are many intriguing aspects of the book. The biographies of Goold-Verschoyle and McAteer offer penetrating glimpses into how the bizarre became banal in Soviet life. In an interlude in Moscow in 1936, Goold-Verschoyle and his girlfriend tried to probe the views of ordinary Muscovites on current affairs. They had some success, but in other instances they spent hours in the company of friendly people too frightened to speak to them. McAteer’s problems in managing his club in Odessa open a window on the peculiarities of a system in which the market is run by a political party. Then there was the odd juxtaposition of power and process in the terror. Breslin’s fate was sealed on his arrest, but the secret police went to great lengths in building their case against him. The account of his interrogation, including a list of questions and answers from his 225-page file, makes grim and compulsive reading. McAteer was a party member on his arrest, and had formerly enlisted the help of Lenin’s secretary, Elena Stasova. He received more summary justice than Breslin, but there were still procedures to be observed, albeit in the most perfunctory way. The horrors of transportation to the camps are discussed in the cases of Breslin and Goold-Verschoyle, who were sentenced to the living death of life in the gulag. The final travesty awaited the widows, families and friends of the victims as they tried vainly to discover the truth from a post-Stalin regime willing to deal with statistics but not with tragedies.
Cracking along at a brisk pace, Left to the wolves is written in a direct, matter-of-fact style, with a minimum of moral or political comment—though one might add that the annotation is too minimal, with sources normally receiving just one citation. The emphasis is on the lives of the protagonists, not just their politics or criminal records, and the lives of their colleagues and loved ones. All acquired romantic attachments, giving an added poignancy to events and providing valuable clues and sources of information. As minor figures, their footprint was not deep, but their involvement with so many people and organisations left a long paper trail which McLoughlin has pieced together through marathon and intrepid sleuthing. Inevitably, given the blank spots in the archival records, the pile of the narrative is uneven, and in places the author is reliant on secondary accounts. Fortunately, he eschews the American historiographical practice of unacknowledged second-guessing, and the distinction between what happened and what probably happened is invariably made explicit. There remains a surprising amount of hostile information gleaned from state sources, and a forte of the book is its authoritative, graphic description. The text is complemented by 40 atmospheric illustrations and photographs.

Emmet O’Connor lectures in history and politics at Magee College, Derry.

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