Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Shady Goings-On in the Jazz Age

I have just started work on my next book, which is going to be about Soviet spies in London in the 1920s. I'm delighted that the book will be published by Granta again. As I've said before on this blog, I was keen to continue writing about Russia, but also to learn more about the city I live in. It’s early days and so there’s not much that I can share yet. We all know that the Soviet Union became the West’s biggest enemy after the Second World War, during what was known as the Cold War. But one of the most notable discoveries of my research so far is just how frightened many people in Britain were of Russian Communism during the 1920s and 1930s.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been spending most Saturdays in the National Archives in Kew, examining official papers, including recently declassified secret documents from the early years of MI5. I’m trying to piece together a story of suspicion and espionage that hasn’t been properly retold since it happened over eighty years ago.

At the moment, my research is focusing on a Soviet organisation called ARCOS, which had offices in London and was supposed to set up trading links between Russian companies and British businessmen. The secret briefing report from 1927 reproduced below gives a good indication of the suspicion (total paranoia might be a better phrase) with which MI5 viewed ARCOS. It also provides an unsettling glimpse into Civil Service drafting in an age before political correctness.

Was MI5 right in its misgivings about what Russians in London were up to? Or was it harassing a group of ordinary, hardworking people whose only fault was to come from a country with a different political system? In helping me to answer that question, I would love to hear from anyone reading this whose relatives had connections to the Communist Party or Russia in the 1920s (or MI5, of course – but not if you’d have to shoot me after telling me).

‘In the current edition of the Commercial Year Book of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Trading Agency of Arcos Ltd. is self-described as “The sole purchasing and selling Agency in Great Britain for the Government of the USSR.” This na├»ve description is typical of the child-like faith the Bolsheviks in general put in the science of auto-suggestion. They believe that if they say a thing often enough most people are bound to believe it in the long run...
'The chief positions are held by Russians all of whom are Soviet citizens. In the majority of cases the managers are Russian Communists and where a Communist is not available, the responsible technical manager is supervised by a member of the Russian Communist Party...
'There is no more rabid Nationalist than the average Russian Communist. His cry is “long live the World Proletariat” but the “World Proletariat” is only a name; a kind of exotic stimulant which plays upon his imagination and gives him an “ideal” without which the average Russian is the merest buffoon. Your Bolshevik is no respecter of persons. He has developed a mass psychology which is capable of thinking only by numbers. Bring him face to face with the individuals of which his “mass” is composed and he shows himself in his true colours...
'The Russian Communist is, too, essentially a bully. He must have his own way in everything with the obvious result that he is not only feared but actually hated by those who have to work under him. He finds the English life agrees with his inherent love of luxury – this is common to all Russians... No Russian Communist in this country lives according to the standard of the average proletarian. He has his house or flat at Hampstead; his servants; his good food and clothing; and altogether is in no way different from the average businessman who is able to keep up a good home and pay visits to the theatres and other places of amusement.
'While he appreciates the social amenities of England, he is anti-British. He sneers at British Art, British music and British drama. It is not that he really despises these things. His horizon is limited and illimitable at one and the same time. His idea of internationalism is a hatred of everything national except it be the product of Soviet Russia.’