Odyssey of a Liberal
By Freda Utley
Arcadi had asked his wife Anna Abramovna, to divorce him in January 1927, following our time together in the Black Forest,
but his separation from her proved to be a long and painful business, complicated by his expulsion from England in the fall of that year. “Mrs. B,” as we called her, had first asked him to wait until she could join either her brother in New York, or her sister in Paris, because she could not bear to have their friends in London know he had left her. Subsequently it became clear that she hoped all along that his feeling for me was a temporary infatuation and that if they continued to live in the same house he would return to her.
Arcadi tried without success to obtain a visa for her to go to the United States where her brother was an engineer with the General Electric Company. And by the time he was able to secure a French visa for her, he himself was being expelled from England. Unfortunately for her own future and that of their son Vitia, she insisted on following him to Moscow after a short sojourn in Paris. Since I remained in England to finish my second year as a Fellow of the London School of Economics and to work for the Communist Party, she continued to hope he would change his mind. It was not until I came to Moscow in the summer of 1928 that they were at long last divorced. Arcadi and I then registered as man and wife in the apartment house where we lived.
I had been too inexperienced fully to appreciate Arcadi’s difficulties. At times I had rebelled at his long delay in freeing himself to be with me. I had felt that he should either break with her at once or give up the idea of living with me. I knew that leaving his son was very difficult for him, but I failed to understand that the ties between a man and a woman who once loved each other are hard for a sensitive man to break when the woman tries with every means at her disposal to maintain the old relationship. Moreover, in leaving his wife Arcadi was making a break with the “bourgeois” life he had lived since finishing his studies in Switzerland. For him I was a symbol as well as companion in the new life in socialist society which we both wanted to lead.
Nearly ten years later the O.G.P.U. was to deprive me of almost all Arcadi’s letters when they searched our Moscow home. But one he wrote to me during this difficult period of our relationship remained hidden within the pages of a book.
“Darling Fredochka,” he wrote,
I suppose you are right in your own way, your brutal way, and that I shall never be able to satisfy you as to the validity of my reason for acting in the way I do.
I shall not pick a quarrel on what you say about my “playing about with the idea of living a different sort of life”; “desiring to go on the same way as before” and a number of other things “read at the bottom of my heart.” There is no use to argue about things on which we can never agree, and I shall not appeal to you to reverse your decision until I can tell you that the way is clear for my giving you as much of myself as you can desire. I love you and I cannot and shall not believe that everything is over until you refuse to come to me when I shall ask you to do so on the strength of changes in my family life. There are for me two possibilities only in the future; either I shall embrace fully to the extent of 100 per cent the creed which will keep me going and make me forget you, or I shall accept it partially as I have done until now and you will be my beloved comrade in fighting all doubts which will arise. Nothing else is possible and the “desire to go on the same way as before” is death, which I do not feel I am ready to accept.
Both of us knew that life in Russia would be hard, that living space was difficult to obtain, and that the conveniences and comforts he had for many years enjoyed abroad would not be obtainable in Russia. Also since he was not a member of the Communist Party, he could never rise to a top position in the Soviet State. Arcadi, being well acquainted with both the old enduring Russian character and the Communists with whom he worked in London as a “non-party specialist,” realized that my rosy picture of the Soviet Union was naive. But, like myself, he believed that a new and better world was being created in Russia, or could be built, if he and others like him devoted themselves to the endeavor without thought of personal advantage.
When my Fellowship came to an end in July, 1928, I took off for Moscow to join Arcadi, prior to his expected assignment to Japan where I should be able to complete the research work on my book on the cotton industry.
This time no smiling delegation met me at the Moscow station, and no luxurious quarters at the Metropol Hotel awaited me. Arcadi took me to a tiny room, not more than fifteen feet by twelve, with a single bed, a chest of drawers, and two straight chairs. There was not even a table, and I had to cook and iron and write on the wide window sill. But the flat was clean, and there was only one family in each of the four rooms sharing kitchen, bathroom and lavatory. For Moscow that was not bad. Unfortunately the room was not ours, but only lent to Arcadi for a few weeks. During the three months we lived in Moscow that year we moved twice.
Arcadi’s salary was only 300 rubles a month, and since we were expecting to leave for Japan at any moment, I could not take a regular job. We just managed to live. Our rent was 50 rubles, meals at a cheap restaurant cost a ruble each. But bread was still cheap; and butter, when obtainable, about the same price as in England. Cigarettes were our greatest extravagance. At the end of each month I used to cart our empty bottles out to sell, or rake through our pockets for forgotten kopeks, to raise the price of a meal.
We were very happy. Discomfort and comparative poverty do not matter much so long as one is in love and has faith. And we both still had faith. Arcadi never regretted his house in London, and I had been poor most of the years since 1914. I wrote to my mother:
I feel sometimes that having found Arcadi is too good to be true. I feel that the fact that we have been able to be happy together in these conditions argues well for the future. We have begun life together in the worst material conditions instead of the best. All the same, we both look forward to the day when we have a bed each and spoons and knives, and a bath and toilet of our own.
The months of waiting in Moscow were difficult and frustrating. I was kept busy finishing a translation from the German of The Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution* which I had begun in England, and which I counted on to provide money for Mother. I found it hard to work that summer in the uncertainty of our situation and the physical difficulties of existence. It became clear to us that without a considerable investment we would never get an apartment or even a room of our own. The brutal facts of life in the ‘Socialist Paradise’ were becoming more and more apparent, although I convinced myself that they were only a passing phase.
As usual I was worried about how to provide money for Mother, who was reluctant to rent out a room in our flat in Jessel House to any stranger.
I had hoped to be able to make some money as an interpreter at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern held that summer, having been recommended by Max Petrovsky, alias Breguer, at that time a big wheel in Moscow. But the deafness which was to afflict me far more seriously in later years prevented me. To mother I wrote: “I tried to interpret into a microphone while the speaker speaks but found my hearing was too bad to manage it. Arcadi is very concerned about my hearing and we are going to try and see a doctor. Also I shall be vaccinated before we leave Moscow and I am arranging to have my teeth done. We have just earned £4 on a Russian translation to pay for it.”
I attended the Congress as a translator of written papers; listened to Bucharin from the visitors’ gallery; saw Borodin walking in the corridors, already disgraced but still a romantic figure; thrilled at the sight of delegates – white, black, brown and yellow – from every corner of the world assembled in the socialist capital, visible witnesses to the “Unity of the Workers of the World.”
Even in those days I had some deviations from “the Party line.” My communism was essentially internationalistic and I thought of Trotsky as Lenin’s heir. But I did not foresee that Stalin would soon acquire the power to destroy all that Lenin and Trotsky and the other old Bolsheviks had hoped to create. Nor had I as yet any inkling of the fundamental canker at the root of the Marxian doctrine which made the emergence of a tyrant such as Stalin practically inevitable. One believes what one wished to believe, until experience bangs one’s head against the wall of reality.
At long last after the O.G.P.U. had fully satisfied itself concerning Arcadi and given him a passport, and the Japanese Government having likewise investigated him and given him a visa, we boarded the Trans Siberian Express. It was already October and we left Russia in the chill, wet Russian autumn, with the first signs of coming hardships already visible in Moscow. For some weeks I had been spending more and more time chasing after food supplies from one shop to another. Rationing had not yet been enforced, but the peasants were already refusing to sell their produce in return for money which could not buy them the clothing and other manufactures they required. Russia was on the eve of the Calvary of forced collectivization.
Describing our hasty departure from Moscow and the first days of our long journey, I wrote to Mother in a letter begun on the train on October 27, 1926:
I am afraid, I have not written for a long time but you will have had my wire saying that we left Moscow on the 20th. As you might expect with me and Arcadi, we hardly managed to get packed in time to catch the train as we did not begin ’til 1:30 A.M. the night before and then had dozens of things to do the last day. So after waiting five months to be off we only just managed to catch the train on Saturday night, arriving at the station 15 minutes before the train left!! However, here we are in a comfortable second-class carriage and having a most interesting journey. Only it is tantalizing not to be able to get off and look at all the places. One gets out at the stations for 10 or 20 minutes and runs about but that is all.
It is already very cold in Siberia. Snow in most places and bitter cold but sunny. Very beautiful after Irkutsk but just flat plains before that. We have already been more than six days in the train but it passes very quickly. Each day time changes by one hour, so one puts one’s watch forward an hour every night and really feels one is racing across the world.
The most wonderful part of the journey is the Baikal lake. We got up at 5:00 A.M. to see the beginning of it. The train runs by the side of the lake for hours and hours-it is like a sea. Absolutely deserted except for a few tiny villages. A great lost lake in the middle of Asia. The wildness of the land even near the railway is wonderful after Europe. I am out of Europe for the first time.
At Chita, in Siberia, I left Arcadi – he to proceed direct to Japan, I to China. To my great delight the Comintern in Moscow had entrusted me with secret papers to take to China. I was to travel across the Russian border into Manchuria and on to Shanghai alone, so that I should not be suspect, while Arcadi proceeded direct to Japan. For a day before I left Moscow I had hunted in the shops for a corset so that I could hide the papers in approved Secret Agent style. I had never before worn even a brassiere and was extremely uncomfortable all through that long journey, but the thrill of conceiving of myself as a real revolutionary, helping to fan the flames of world revolution and liberate the “oppressed colonial workers” sustained me through the ordeal of wearing what is today called a foundation garment for the first time in my life.
From on October 29 I wrote to Mother with discretion:
Have decided to stop two days here and have a look around. This place is a day’s journey from the Chinese frontier and is already very Eastern. It was the capital of the Far Eastern Republic before the Bolsheviks got control. The people here other than the Russians are Mongols. Unfortunately, one can get little information from anyone.
It is a pity Temple is not here to tell me about the races, etc. I wish I remembered more about Genghis Khan, etc. On the train one passes through great stretches of land and over big rivers of which no one seems to know even the name. The unexplored, unknown parts of the world. It is amazing to think that the Russians managed to colonize as far as this.
All I can today remember of Chita is the intense cold from which I sought temporary relief by boiling myself in hot baths, and the memorials of the Decembrists, the 150 exiled revolutionaries of 1825 who had dreamed of liberty, equality, and fraternity under the Iron Tsar, Nicholas I. Only later was it to be borne in me how mild had been the tyranny of the Tsars compared to that of Stalin. Few nineteenth- and early twentieth-century revolutionaries in Russia were executed or herded into concentration camps to do forced labor as under Stalin and Hitler’s 20th-century totalitarian tyrannies. For the most part they were permitted to live in exile in Siberia with their families, and could even escape without too much difficulty if they were so minded. In Soviet Russia in later years I was to learn that such comparatively humane and civilized treatment of political opponents makes Tsarist tyranny in retrospect seem almost benevolent.
I was looked after in Chita by a lively, energetic, and cheerful little O.G.P.U. man who had formerly been a sailor on American boats, and whom I was to meet years later in Moscow as a minor and most unhappy official at the Comintern. He was the sort of man who loves being conspiratorial for its own sake, and his manner of putting me on the express train to Harbin, from the tracks instead of the platform, into a specially reserved compartment, should have aroused the suspicion of the Japanese or Chinese spies, if there had been any.
I went through a bad half-hour at the Manchurian border. A young German with whom I had got friendly in the dining car remarked to me while we waited at the passport and customs-control office, that the system was to watch the faces of the travelers rather than to search their baggage carefully. A row of huge “White Russian” guards stood behind the Chinese customs officials watching the passengers. I had an innocent face and a British passport and Marshal Chang Tso-lin‘s police would need to have been very suspicious to search the person of a British subject, which was the reason why the Comintern had selected me to be its courier. So I really had nothing much to fear and my papers remained safe “in my bosom,” as the old novels would have said.
Arrived in Harbin, I had the shock of discovering that Arcadi was still there and staying in the same hotel as myself. Seeing him quite close as I entered the restaurant for breakfast, I veered away and took a seat as far from him as possible, although longing to speak to him. However, it was a comfort to both of us that he should know I had safely crossed the border.
The Comintern, with the inefficiency characteristic of all Russian institutions, had been unaware that the fighting going on in North China had stopped all passenger traffic on the railway to Peking and that I would, therefore, have to get to Shanghai by sea from Dairen. The money I had been provided with for my journey was insufficient to meet the extra expense of waiting in the hotel at Dairen for passage on the crowded boats, and I had hardly a cent of my own. So in order to preserve enough to exist on in Shanghai for the ten days I planned to stay there, I economized in Dairen by eating only one meal a day. I took the table d’hote midday dinner at the de luxe Yamamoto Hotel and ate all through every one of its six or seven courses under the astonished and amused eyes of the Japanese waiters.
Eventually I got a ship to Shanghai where, according to my instructions I registered at the Palace Hotel and telephoned to a business office asking for a gentleman with a German name and telling him I had arrived with the samples of silk stockings he was waiting for. “Herr Doktor Haber.” as he then called himself, came over at once and I handed over to him with considerable relief the sealed and silk encased package which I had concealed so long on my person, and which contained I know not what secret instructions for the furtherance of Communist aims in China.
Some days later I was permitted to meet with leaders of the Communist underground in Shanghai in one of their secret hideouts. Our rendezvous was at midnight in a whitewashed cellar somewhere off the Nanking Road in the British concession, to which I was conducted by a devious route lest anyone should be following me. It was very conspiratorial and thrilling and reminds me today of a Hollywood spy movie. For my Chinese companions it was deadly earnest since the British authorities in the International settlement, as well as Chiang Kai-shek’s newly establishment government, were intent on rooting out and exterminating the remnants of the Moscow directed Chinese Communist party.
I was probably safe from anything worse than deportation from China, but others were risking their lives.
Most of the men I met that night were not Chinese, but Americans and Germans or German speaking Europeans. The former, like myself, could rely on their governments’ protecting them, however reluctantly, against summary arrest, torture or death. But some among those present had become men without a country by reason of their dedication to the Communist cause. Those who came from Eastern Europe or other countries ruled over by dictatorships had no hope of protection from their governments.
They all plied me with questions about happenings in Moscow which I had difficulty in answering. If not crypto-Trotskyists, most of them seemed to be most unhappy revolutionaries who had witnessed Stalin’s callous and cynical sacrifice of the Chinese Communists, and were watching with dismay the beginnings of his transformation of the Comintern into a sub-office of the Russian national state.
If I had been able to transcribe and preserve details of my discussions with the Comintern underground leaders in Shanghai in 1928 I could present some valuable historical sidelights on The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution .*
Ten years later I was to meet victims of this long drawnout tragedy whom I had briefly encountered in the Communist underground in 1928.
In Shanghai, in October 1938, when about to leave for America after six months as correspondent for the London News Chronicle in the Hankow war zone, I was awakened very early by the telephone ringing by my bedside. A man’s voice asked me if he could come up but would give no name. I was still half asleep when a white-faced, emaciated and shabbily dressed individual entered the room. I did not remember him but he gave me such full details of my visit to Shanghai in 1928 that I was convinced. He was pitifully nervous, dared not stay long, and begged me to come and visit him and his wife that evening.
They were the once famous couple internationally known under the name Noulens who had been arrested as Comintern agents in 1933 and made headlines when they went on a hunger strike.
I agreed to visit them but I was nervous because Noulens had insisted on my telling no one. For all I knew he might still be a Communist agent or could conceivably be working for the Japanese, and both Moscow and Tokyo would no doubt have liked to have me quietly disappear. So I took my trusted friend Randall Gould, editor of the Shanghai Evening Post, into my confidence. He offered to wait for me in his car at the end of the street and come and rescue me if I did not rejoin him in an hour’s time.
The Noulens told me they had been released from prison in 1937 following the outbreak of war with Japan and the ostensible submission of the Chinese Communist Party to the Kuomintang government in a joint defense against Japanese aggression. Madame Sun Yat-sen was supplying them with enough money to exist. But they had been warned to see no one – or so they said, and I believed them. They told me they had so longed to speak to someone they had once known and trusted that they had risked asking me to their home. They were obviously terrified. Austrians without passports and with nowhere to go, they feared liquidation if they returned to Russia because they knew too much. I urged them to meet Randall Gould, who was a liberal and a kindly man and who I knew would try to help them. But they dared not.
Poor devils. I felt full of pity for these two white-faced derelicts of an age in Comintern history long past. They had left one prison only to fear incarceration in another. Rejected by everyone, they were too broken in spirit to save themselves and start a new life. I had known men and women like them in Moscow, old revolutionaries whose hopes were dead but who could not break with their past and waited only for death.
“Dr. Haber” seems to have had better luck and more sense. He had organized a real import business as cover for his Comintern activities and developed it into a flourishing enterprise. Some of his employees acted in the double capacity of traveling salesmen and agents of the Comintern with their salaries halved between Moscow and Haber’s business account. According to the account given of him in Pattern for World Revolution* by the former Communist “Ypsilon,” Haber, whom he calls Comrade L, decided in the early thirties that the Revolution was dead and henceforth devoted himself exclusively to the business which was by then netting him a hundred thousand dollars a year profit. He calmly returned the amount of the original capital advanced to him by Moscow, arguing that this was all the Comintern had a right to expect since he had all along paid ten per cent interest besides performing his duties as a Comintern agent.
I lived a double, or rather, a treble life in Shanghai, spending part of my time investigating conditions in the cotton industry; some evenings as the guest of “British Imperialists” at luxurious dinner parties and dancing or going to theaters with them; and others in secret meetings with the Communists.
It was part of the game that I should mix with the “bourgeoisie” and appear quite innocent of revolutionary activity; and my cotton industry investigations were in any case genuine. But,l was not cut out to be a conspirator, being all too intent on testifying to the “capitalists” concerning the rottenness of their system and the wickedness of their exploitation of the colonial workers. Thinking on one occasion to kill any doubts they might have about me, I told a Shanghai dinner party that I was doing some reporting for the Manchester Guardian. This was true, and I thought it should establish my bona fides in the “bourgeois” world. To my mind, the Manchester Guardian signified the “capitalist press,” but to my compatriots in Shanghai it was “that Red rag,” the paper for which “that awful fellow Arthur Ransome” wrote. All values are indeed relative as Hadow used to say. Five years later in Moscow in one of the periodic purges, or “cleansing of the apparatus,” it was brought up against me as a proof of capitalist connections, that I had at one time worked for the Manchester Guardian.
Before sailing for Kobe with a batch of letters to be mailed there to Communist agents in Japan, I had myself inoculated against smallpox. Either because it was the first time, or because I went to a careless doctor or the serum was contaminated, or because I got some infection in the cheap and rather dirty hotel in the French concession to which I had moved after completing my mission for the Comintern, the results was so grim as to justify my father’s refusal to have me inoculated in childhood when even in England the hazards of vaccination were considerable.
A German doctor in Shanghai after having “done me on the leg” had told me to come back four days later. Finding then that his inoculation seemed to have had no effect, he concluded that I was not liable to smallpox infection, and dismissed me without even putting on a piece of clean lint. The old dressing had fallen off before I left Shanghai, but I didn’t bother since the doctor had been so casual about it. That night it seemed a bit swollen, so I went to the ship’s doctor and he put on a clean dressing. Next day I felt rather bad and had a lump in my groin and the vaccinated part was so swollen that I went to the doctor again and he said not to worry, it was the natural effect of vaccination. That afternoon I went to bed about 5 o’clock and sent for aspirin. I felt very ill and even a bit delirious that night and had to make a great effort to pack and get ashore next morning, but nonetheless did not feel as bad as the night before. I got into a train at Kobe at once for Tokyo where I arrived next morning at 6:00 A.M. I went to an hotel and had a bath but kept my leg out of it, lay down a bit and later on went off to find Arcadi. My leg was by this time very swollen and painful and I put it all down to the vaccination. Arcadi insisted on my going to a doctor at once and I came to a place called St. Luke’s hospital run by Americans but with Japanese doctors. At last I was in competent hands in a beautiful clean place. The doctor said I had been infected and had got erysipelas and must go to bed at once as it would be very dangerous if it spread. I was a bit frightened. The inflammation spread up to my groin and when my temperature went up and I felt generally pretty rotten they took me into the hospital where I spent 2½ days and got down the lump in my groin with ice bags. They stopped the inflammation spreading with some thick black ointment and soon there was no more danger. I have been up three days only I have had to go and have it dressed every two days, till the ulcers healed. The worst of the whole business is that it is and has been very expensive. I have not yet paid the Doctor’s bill but it is about 6 shillings a time, and the hospital was 24/- a day, and then there is also the waste of time. In a later letter to Mother I wrote: “My leg has cost £11 already apart from the waste of time. Altogether, I wish very much that I had never been vaccinated. Arcadi never wanted me to and now I have worried him so much. He has been very concerned especially, as he says, because it is my leg and he thinks my legs the best part of me!”
Even after I left the hospital I remained separated from Arcadi except for clandestine meetings. As I wrote Mother:
The worst of it is that at present we are living almost as strangers and only meeting occasionally. This week he is in Osaka and I shall not be seeing him at all. The point is that I must see factories here and be accepted as a research student before I get mixed up with him, he being a Russian. The spying here is terrible and although Arcadi is not a Communist, and I am here for absolutely bona fide reasons, it is dangerous for us to be together at first. It is all a damnable nuisance and soon we are going to the same boarding house to lead an immoral life! But for the moment you will laugh to hear that I am living with a missionary! She is a very nice one and has a charming house on the water, and I have a delightful room and good food but I feel a bit lonely after this long separation – more than a month now – and am longing to be with Arcadi again. I am getting this letter posted in Vladivostock as otherwise, of course, the Japanese police would read it. You will also understand why I wired to stop Lily’s letters, which are most compromising politically. This is a country in which it is dangerous to be even a liberal. The University here has me under their wing and I have other good introductions and I don’t want to spoil it all by association with Russians until I have seen all I can. Hence my temporary ‘divorce’ from Arcadi. So my future letters will be a bit colourless.
It proved as impossible to get some of my English friends to understand the nature of a police state then as later in Russia. John Strachey’s wife was so ignorant or silly as to send me a letter addressed c/o the Japanese Communist Party, which was of course illegal and underground – a letter which I naturally never received and learned about only later.
The name of the very nice missionary with the “house on the water” was Miss Henty. She ran a kindergarten school for poor Japanese children and she was a darling. After I had confided in her and told her all about Arcadi instead of being shocked she helped us to meet as often and as discreetly as possible. She also assisted me greatly in my research by introducing me to Japanese friends, interpreting for me, and putting me in touch with teachers and social workers in other cities. Thus I stayed mainly with missionaries or in YWCA dormitories with Japanese girls while busily visiting large textile factories in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, and small weaving sheds in outlying districts.
But for awhile I was, if not immobilized, considerably hampered by the after effects of my Shanghai vaccination.
On December 27, 1929 I wrote to Mother telling her that I evidently must have got “very run down” in Moscow because otherwise the “vaccination business” would not have developed such complications. “It is nearly seven weeks since it was done,” I wrote on December 27, “and the ulcers have only just begun to heal. Also my teeth have been all wrong and I have had a lot of toothache.” But I add, she should not worry because, after having just spent three Christmas holiday days at the sea at Atami with Arcadi, “walking all the time” I am feeling particularly well.
My letters from Japan that lonely December of separation from Arcadi reveal both my nostalgia for home and my temporary loss of confidence in myself, which was in part the result of the English Communist publishers of my translation of the Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution having complained of the quality of the work I had done on the second volume while in Moscow. Today I surmise that the real reason why, after having been very well satisfied with my translation of the first volume, they were now complaining and refusing to pay the money due to me, was because of the change in the ‘party line’ necessitating revision of the text to eliminate Trotsky entirely from the scene. But at the time I was shattered by the complaint about the quality of my work, and feared that I had become “decomposed.”*
I was soon to recover my self-confidence as I immersed myself in my study of the Japanese cotton industry and after I had some widely publicized articles published in the Manchester Guardian. But I retained a lingering fear that I might be becoming “decomposed,” as when I wrote to Mother: “I am living in the present for the first time in my life and I know it is dangerous.”
At the end of January, having accumulated an abundance of data. I went to live with Arcadi in Tokyo at the small house he had rented at Kogaicho 2, Azabu, near the Soviet Trade Representation offices. To the letter I wrote to Mother from Tokyo early in the morning of January 30, 1929, after a long coach journey from Osaka, Arcadi added a squeezed in postscript:
I bargained with Freda for space but she treats room on her paper as if it were a Moscow flat. She is rather stingy but it can’t be helped. I must stand it because she is now such a rare guest of mine! Three weeks in three months! I used an extension of space wishing you the best of luck in 1929 and all the years to come. My love to Temple and many thanks for the book you sent me. Best of love, Arcadi.