ON 3 March 1930, Arthur Henderson, Foreign Secretary, received a report from Esmond Ovey, British Ambassador in Moscow, which read in part: “I wish to premise, with some confidence, that the anti-clerical attitude of the [Soviet] Government and even the anti-religious propaganda of the Communist party do not connote ‘atrocities’ in the physical sense. I have no evidence of any general shootings of priests. . .”
Less than a year before that, Stalin had passed his most notorious anti-religious law, which fomented the final assault against believers. Already, for 12 years, one “atrocity” had succeeded the next, with sometimes periods of lesser intensity, but never any relaxation in a determined — and publicised — intention of eliminating religion from Russian society. Already thousands of clergy had perished
Among a catalogue of misleading statements and sometimes downright lies gleaned from British political and intellectual sources throughout this long book, this official report perhaps represents the nadir of misinformation emanating from the diplomatic service. How could the Foreign Office have sunk so low? Yet its exoneration of Soviet atrocities was welcome to the ears of many circles in the UK eager to hear positive news from the country of their beloved Bolshevik Revolution.
Giles Udy’s remarkable work explores in minute detail the romantic enthusiasm of the British Left for Bolshevism, not only in its early and — some would say — more idealistic days under Lenin, but also during its assault against humanity under Stalin. Two themes stand out: how the propagandists (East and West) concealed the persecution of religion and the slave labour that underpinned the export of timber.
This timely book, marking the centenary of this upheaval, recreates the political atmosphere that permeated Parliament, dominated by Labour during the key years. He does this by extensive quotation from the sources that he has painstakingly researched. His citations are often long, but it is always worth while persevering with them.
As Udy proves on page after page, facts were not always impossible to come by, but the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb systematically demonstrated deeply flawed political judgement in ignoring the reality.
Were there no views to balance the voice of propaganda? There were. Winston Churchill was largely ignored, but among Anglicans, Baptists, and Methodists there was clarity. A forgotten hero emerges from these pages: Prebendary Alfred Gough, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton. Besides reviving this church through his preaching, he founded the Christian Protest Movement, through which he exposed the religious persecution endemic in Russia. Hundreds of thousands joined it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, initially refrained from becoming so “politically” involved. Carefully, he requested a private update from a trusted Russian émigré. Sadly, the letter went astray; Soviet misinformation persuaded him to state, in a debate in the House of Lords in December 1929, that persecution was waning. Soon he would learn the opposite; he supported Gough and subsequently exhibited an exemplary record in upholding the persecuted. Udy’s research here is deeply impressive.
He has much to say about kulaks, literally “fists”. The Soviets used this image to discredit these millions of honourable people. Collectivisation dispossessed them of their land, and the more successfully they tilled it, the more they were represented as criminals. Deprived of their documents, they had no ration card and often starved — literally — to death. Priests encountered identical persecution. Their wives and children died of hunger as well.
Surviving kulaks and priests provided slave labour for the logging camps. Britain extensively engaged in the timber trade with the Soviet Union, which led to skulduggery in protecting it, even though sailors who loaded the British ships in the Arctic ports often had visual proof that slavery was being employed. After William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade, Parliament had passed strict legislation banning any profit from “sweated labour”. Udy documents the timber controversy at length.
Bolshevism was a tragedy every bit as evil as Nazism, but it was only war between the two, with the German invasion of 1941, which eased the persecution of the Church.
By implication, Labour and the Gulag is relevant to the 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev again persecuted believers, but this time many church leaders ignored the evidence, irrefutable though it was.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.
Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the seduction of the British Left
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