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16 August 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

The story of four women who trusted Uncle Joe

By Francis Beckett

I wanted to tell the stories of four remarkable British women whose lives were scorched by Stalin’s purges. One was shot as a spy; one nearly died as a slave labourer in Kazakhstan; and two saw their husbands taken away to the Gulag and had to spirit their small children out of the country.

We in Britain think of the horrors of the middle of the 20th century – the Holocaust in central Europe, the purges in the Soviet Union – as something foreign: terrible, but remote, like famine in Africa. But Rosa Rust, Rose Cohen, Freda Utley and Pearl Rimel were all Londoners, as English as fish and chips. Like hundreds of young, idealistic Britons in the 1930s, they looked to the Soviet Union for a way in which society could be run better, without the exploitation and poverty that unrestrained capitalism had created in Britain. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Britons joined the millions of Russians who suffered under Stalin – the KGB holds files on about 1,500 British citizens.

The years immediately after the First World War and the 1917 revolution in Russia were years of hope and optimism, when the British generation that had fought the First World War vowed that their friends had not died in order to return to the same old unfair society they had known before 1914. My book is not just the story of four women. It is also the story of how those high hopes turned to dust and ashes in the years between the two world wars.

There are two views of Stalin’s purges in 1936-38, in which millions were judicially murdered. One, articulated by Nikita Khrushchev in his expose of Stalin in 1956, was that these events were simply the result of Stalin himself, a pot of poison at the heart of an otherwise benevolent social system. The other is that they were an integral part of the Soviet system inaugurated by Lenin in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. This second view was most neatly summed up by Robert Conquest:

There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

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If pressed, I incline to the Khrushchev view. Conquest is less than fair to Lenin. Communism did not have to be murderous, viciously petty-minded, sectarian and vindictive. In theory, communism is a generous and fair-minded creed, which rejects, for good reason, the poverty amid plenty which is the hallmark of capitalism. There’s a case for saying that it was simply hijacked by a cold-blooded mass murderer. But for that to be possible, the fault-line had to be there. And the fault-line was there. The seeds for the Stalin Terror were there; but they needed a monster like Stalin to nurture them. The fault-line was the sectarian intolerance and the lack of feeling for individual human beings that Russian communists took to be virtues.

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Russian communists trained communist parties all over the world, including the Communist Party of Great Britain, to see these things as virtues, too. One of the oddest and most fascinating parts of the stories of Rosa Rust, Rose Cohen, Freda Utley and Pearl Rimel is how Britain’s communist leaders reacted to what they knew, and how they coped with their regular visits to Moscow, knowing what was happening to their friends there. This book examines how and why men and women who started out with genuine idealism and a rage against injustice ended by abandoning their friends and comrades when they needed them most, and continuing to praise and to obey the man who was responsible for their torment.