Several of the names come up in a book published recently – Labour and the Gulag by Giles Udy. The Russian Revolution took place a century ago and the scale of the resulting genocide has been staggering. It is estimated that Communism has caused over 100 million deaths – including over 20 million in the Soviet Union.
The horrific accounts of mass murder are already – although Udy provides a compelling and detailed account of some of the horrors. But his focus is on the backing for the Soviet Union from senior figures in the British Labour Party while these crimes were taking place.
It was not just a fringe on Labour’s far left – mainstream Labour figures were complicit. The genocide did not start with Stalin but was already widespread under Lenin. Nor was it something that only came to light subsequently. There was an abundance of contemporary evidence – from the churches, from the media, from the Anti Slavery Society, from diplomatic sources. Official papers from the period quoted by Udy show that often these politicians privately admitted the truth of what was happening but still refused to speak out.
Cripps “advocated the suspension of Parliament, a British dictatorship of the proletariat”. At the Labour Party conference in January 1932, he declared that Russia had taught British socialists that “Socialism would replace capitalism.”
One chapter in the book concerns the arrest, in March 1933, of a number of British engineers working in Russia, for the firm of Metropolitan-Vickers, on charges of wrecking and espionage: “The charges were fabricated and had been prompted by the Russians’ acute shortage of foreign currency (the next instalments of payment from the Russian government to Metro-Vickers were about to be due) and their need to deflect attention from the famine in Ukraine, which was claiming millions of lives.”
Cripps would hear no ill of Moscow’s possible verdict and said in the House of Commons:
“If the Russian system is a system of justice, as I accept, and if they have a crime the penalty of which is death, then the person who is guilty of that crime must be put to death.”
Four years later, Stalin was to extend the death penalty to children as young as twelve years old.
In that same year, 1937, Cripps declared:
“Russia, alone among the countries of Europe, has shown herself a champion of working-class power, and has done what she can in a world over-ridden by capitalism and imperialism to stem the tide of fascist aggression.”
Two years later the Nazi Soviet Pact was agreed.
Bevan continued to be an emphatic apologist for Soviet tyranny even during the Stalin era. During the Metropolitan-Vickers debate he said:
“You are daring to suggest that as the present Russia has now been established for 12 or 15 years there is no reason at all for class legislation in Russia. Our newspapers speak with an abandon, with a virulence, about Russian affairs such as they would not dare to use about any other country, and day by day there is anti-Russian propaganda in this House. We do not use such language of any other country. [An HON. MEMBER: ‘They do not deserve it!’] Exactly, that is your class prejudice. Believe me, if I had the power you would not have a good many of the things you think you deserve now; and I am perfectly satisfied, as I said just now, that when you are sufficiently frightened of us there are many things that you will not accord to me. “
For a Foreign Office Minister in the Labour Government from 1929-31, Dalton made an effort to prevent any diplomats who “seemed anti-Bolshevik” being appointed to the British Embassy in Moscow.
In March 1930 Dalton wrote:
“The stuff about religious persecution is all moonshine. The priests whom he sees all look fat. They have shut up a lot of churches of course. But no one ever went to them except a handful of old people.”
Yet as early as 1922 these instructions had been issued by Lenin:
“On the subject of the seizure of the Church’s valuables: the conference is to reach a secret decision to the effect that the removal of valuables, and especially those in the wealthiest abbeys, monasteries, and churches, must be carried out with merciless determination, stopping at nothing whatever, and in the shortest possible time. Therefore, the more representatives of the reactionary clergy we manage to shoot, the better. We must give these people, right now, such a lesson that for decades to come they will not dare even to think of resistance.”
By 1925 over 15,000 clergy, monks and nuns had perished.
Udy records that not all were shot or put in camps. Some were starved to death as an act of deliberate policy:
“In May 1925, article 69 of the constitution stipulated that ‘servants of religious cults for whom this service is a profession’ were to be disenfranchised. The measure did not distinguish between faiths and therefore equally applied to priests, pastors, rabbis, and mullahs. In itself, given their antipathy towards the Bolsheviks, those singled out by the measure might not have cared to vote in the first place but, once singled out, the disenfranchised (lishentzi) became an identifiable group against whom severer measures of repression were taken. One of the most drastic consequences of being classified as lishentzi was that this group was no longer entitled to ration cards. In a time of severe food shortages, that meant that clergy were forced to buy bread at vastly inflated black market prices.”
A change in 1926 banned an even wider group of individuals associated with any church, synagogue or mosque from being given ration cards:
“Monks, novices, priests, deacons, psalm readers, mullahs, muezzins, rabbis, cantors, RC priests, pastors, elders, and people under other names performing the same duties regardless of whether they receive pay for their services.”
A later declaration expanded the list still further, naming:
“Choir singers, choirmasters, organists, readers, shamans, rezhniks,* muezzins, teachers of church schools, heads and teachers of various circles run by religious societies, members of parish councils, different officials and personnel of parish councils and religious societies, [and even] artists who execute work by order of parish councils and religious societies.”
Strachey was a friend of Dalton and a fellow Old Etonian. Udy recounts a dinner in 1929 they both attended, “Strachey had spent five weeks in Russia the previous year and had returned with glowing reports of its progress and of the character of its newly emerging leader, Stalin. ” Strachey “would go on to become one of the most prolific and widely read British Communist theorists of the 1930s.”
“In February 1930, at the height of the religious persecution controversy, Strachey wrote in another paper that ‘the miracles predicted under Lenin and Trotsky are now being seen under Stalin’.”
The book gives a shocking account of slave labour in the Soviet Union including in the timber industry – including for export to Britain. The trade was arranged by a British businessman called Montague Meyer.
After the war the firm remained “a leading importer of timber, specialising in Russian softwood.”:
“Those who could obtain import licences (from the Board of Trade) had the opportunity to create considerable wealth. Montague L. Meyer Ltd. was one company which had prospered. Its friendly relations with the Labour Party, forged at the time of the 1930s Russian timber affair, probably also helped when it came to pitching for the contract to handle timber clearance in the unsuccessful groundnut-growing scheme in Africa, overseen by former close friend of the USSR, John Strachey, now Minister of Food. Montague L. Meyer Ltd was awarded the contract.”
Wilson was also associated with Montague Meyer. In 1947, Wilson was made president of the Board of Trade and remained in government until he suddenly resigned in May 1951:
“Only three weeks later, he joined Montague L. Meyer Ltd as a consultant. Meyer particularly valued the contacts Wilson had made with the Russians while at the Board of Trade, and on the firm’s behalf, Meyer commissioned Wilson to travel to the USSR to do business. He made his first trip to the Soviet Union in May 1953, and over the following twelve years, before he returned to politics, he made a further eleven trips to Russia for the firm.”
“Wilson’s time at the Board of Trade, the manner of his leaving, and his contacts with Montague Meyer generated a stream of rumour and innuendo. Hartley Shawcross, who succeeded Wilson in 1951 as president of the Board of Trade, wrote to The Times in 1974 about the corruption which he had discovered when he arrived at the Board of Trade, and said that it involved ‘one individual occupying an exalted position’. Wilson’s enemies, aided by Private Eye magazine, took this to be a reference to Wilson himself. Meanwhile, the Security Service had become alarmed at the frequency of Wilson’s trips to Russia. It was the height of the Cold War; the success of any British business venture in the USSR could not have been achieved without the tacit approval of senior members of the Soviet government.”
In March 1930 she was among a group of Labour MPs who signed the following statement:
“We have witnessed during the last few weeks a fierce campaign on the part of the capitalist press, with one or two honourable exceptions, against Soviet Russia, with whom the Labour Government has just resumed normal diplomatic relations. We note with satisfaction that the Labour Government has not been deceived by the Tory allegations of religious persecution, and has refused to be intimidated.”
“We trust British public opinion to resist most emphatically any attempts to injure the development of friendly relations between these two great countries by means of false atrocity stories and malicious inventions.”