Swallows, Amazons and the Kremlin
Many thought the author Arthur Ransome was a Bolshevik. In truth he was a British spy who seduced Trotsky’s secretary
The Sunday Times, 18th July
There seemed little doubt that one of Britain’s national newspapers was harbouring a red agent. Not only that, but Arthur Ransome — later to be renowned as the author of Swallows and Amazons — was publishing one pro-Bolshevik piece after another with seeming impunity.
It was an outrage, in the eyes of several senior military intelligence officers, who lobbied Ransome’s bosses at The Daily News to have him sacked.
They were pounding on an open door. The editor and the newspaper’s owner, the chocolate magnate George Cadbury, were so incensed by the tone of Ransome’s reports that they had already tried to recall him.
Before he could pack up his office in Moscow, however, they had received an unexpected visit from Robert Bruce Lockhart, a senior British diplomat. Ransome, he informed them in a way that brooked no argument, was far too valuable to Britain where he was: he would have to stay.
Even today the novelist’s reputation remains clouded by the insinuation that he was a naive, overenthusiastic and potentially traitorous supporter of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, who had become key members of the new leadership under Vladimir Lenin after the 1917 October revolution. The truth, however, is that Ransome was a British spy.
After becoming his paper’s Moscow correspondent, he had sought out Trotsky, the Bolshevik foreign affairs commissar, for an interview. The request was duly granted, and the arrangements were made by Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s attractive 23-year-old secretary.
Ransome, then separated from his wife, became romantically involved with her and soon found himself deeply in love. What Shelepina did not know, at least to start with, was that her new beau was actually agent S76, working for British intelligence. And although the love affair was genuine, it also provided him with a good excuse to spend a lot of time in Trotsky’s offices.
When she found out about her lover’s activities, Shelepina appears to have decided that love conquers all. Over the next six months she gave Ransome detailed information on the intentions of the Bolshevik leadership and its attitude towards Britain in particular, which he passed on to Ernest Boyce, the head of the British secret service in Russia.
By the middle of 1918 those spymasters were growing concerned about the risks Shelepina was running. Foreseeing trouble, Lockhart asked for her name to be put on Ransome’s passport as the author’s wife, since “her services to the allies have been considerable”.
Ransome, too, realised she needed to be removed from danger. So he persuaded a Bolshevik diplomat to give Shelepina a job in the Russian legation in Stockholm and then moved his own office to Sweden. It was an ingenious solution, which gave Shelepina and Ransome a good chance of escaping if the Russians realised what was going on, while granting them continued access to Bolshevik secrets.
Meanwhile, his bosses at The Daily News were smarting under the onslaught of yet another slew of Ransome’s pro-Bolshevik pieces. This time they agreed they had no choice but to bring him home. But yet again they received a visit — on this occasion from the actor and theatre impresario Harley Granville-Barker. Claiming to represent the War Office, he “implored” them to keep their correspondent in Sweden. Informed that the paper could no longer afford to pay the hotel accommodation of both Ransome and Shelepina, Granville-Barker — in fact a senior member of the secret service — told them the War Office itself would meet the couple’s bills.
Soon another problem arose: the quality of Ransome’s secret reports from Sweden was starting to flag. But S76 dug in his heels: he did not want to return to Moscow because of the danger that Shelepina might be exposed as a British agent.
It was time, his secret bosses decided, to sully Ransome’s public image back home even further. John Scale, the British secret service representative in Stockholm, persuaded the Swedish authorities to put the couple on a list of 13 “dangerous Bolsheviks” to be expelled from Sweden. Meanwhile, Lockhart arranged to give a well-publicised talk at King’s College London, where, in front of representatives of the right-wing press, he stridently denounced Ransome’s pro-Bolshevik reporting.
With his reputation as an “out-and-out Bolshevik” happily restored, Ransome agreed to return to Russia with Shelepina. The ruses had worked, and the journalist continued to burrow into the heart of the Bolshevik establishment, having regular meetings with Lenin himself.
“I even got a letter from Lenin authorising all the commissars to give me whatever information I might ask for,” Ransome said. “I was entirely uncontrolled.”
And he told Boyce: “There is no one else who can keep in such close touch with affairs there as I can. I am just as friendly with the leaders of the other parties inside Soviet Russia as with the Bolsheviks.”
By May 1920, though, Ransome was again becoming jittery about Shelepina’s safety. After so many years as a secret agent, he knew that the net could soon be closing in.
To his delight Shelepina persuaded the Bolsheviks to let her go to Britain — on the one condition that she had to smuggle in more than 1m roubles’ worth of precious gems to fund communist parties in Europe. No one knows exactly what happened to the gems, but they were almost certainly delivered — no doubt under the surveillance of the British secret service. Certainly, Shelepina’s later years were untroubled by Soviet hit squads.
There was, however, a more immediate problem: Ransome’s estranged wife, Ivy, refused to divorce him. Knowing that the British mores of the day would have made life intolerable for his mistress, Ransome decided they would have to live abroad. In the end they went to Estonia, where he continued to work as a journalist.
He remained in contact with his friends in the British secret service until at least 1922, providing them with further intelligence. One valuable piece of information he delivered was a list of the former tsarist officers serving in the Soviet forces who might make British agents.
In 1924, finally divorced and free to marry Shelepina, he brought her to Britain. Comfortably installed in the Lake District, where he wrote the series of children’s books that made his name, he gently discouraged all questions about his Bolshevik past until his death in 1967.
Six — A History of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Part 1: Murder and Mayhem 1909-1939, by Michael Smith, is published by Dialogue at ?19.99
Swallows, Amazons and the Kremlin