Amidst the commemorations of the Easter Rising in March of 2016, no mention was made of a Russian connection to the seismic events that took place in Dublin one hundred years previously. Remarkably, however, a small delegation of Bolsheviks was in fact dispatched to the capital shortly after the republican insurrection took place.
The precise dates of the visit have been difficult to pinpoint, but the evidence suggests the Bolsheviks showed up in Dublin immediately after the events of Easter week, and certainly before their own revolution a few months later. Amongst their number was the future Soviet ambassador to Great Britain and an experimental playwright who would become a central figure as the Bolsheviks set about reshaping Russian culture along communist lines. The fragmented pieces of this story, sitting unearthed for decades in a series of forgotten books and personal recollections, was the component of an interview with me on today’s episode of the BBC Radio 4 show Making History. What follows is an account of how I pieced the archival snapshots of the story together to uncover the curious convergence of two revolutions.
Russian revolutionary connections to Ireland run deep. The first Russian political exile, Vladimir Petcherin, spent the last part of his life as a Catholic priest in Ireland, allegedly absolving Fenians against the order of the Church hierarchy. In 1907, Maxim Litvinov, later a major Soviet diplomat, spent several months in Belfast as a fugitive after a Bolshevik coordinated bank robbery in Georgia. Following the murder of her husband in 1916, a letter of condolence sent to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was signed by Leon Trotsky’s secretary. The pre-revolutionary traffic between Moscow and Dublin tends to echo weakly in the historical record, but it does exist. The story of the Bolshevik visit to Dublin is part of this continuity, rather than an isolated historical curiosity. So how do we know it occurred, and, indeed, what exactly happened?
A crucial source, and one of the first pieces of information that piqued my curiosity, was Patrick Little’s Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, where the Dublin journalist describes meeting a group of Bolsheviks in post-insurrection Dublin. According to Little, their aims were twofold: to research street-fighting tactics and to study the theory of Ireland’s pre-eminent socialist thinker James Connolly. There’s a number of inaccuracies in Little’s recollection. Ivan Maisky, noted as delegate no. 1, did not disappear during the Great Terror as Little implies. Despite copious links to ‘alien ideologies’ through his role as ambassador to Britain, Maisky died of remarkably natural causes. Delegate no. 2, “the editor of ‘Isvestia’, a big daily newspaper in Moscow,” was affirmed by Little to have been “killed in the Russian revolution.” Little seems to imply this Russian arrived under the auspices of the paper. If so, he misremembered. The paper, still in publication, was created amidst the Russian Revolution. However, seated on one of Izvestia’searliest editorial boards was a Bolshevik named Platon Kerzhentsev. This interesting character soon became the key to uncovering the broader context of the Bolshevik visit to Dublin. Kerzhentsev, as we will soon discover, did not die during the revolution.
It is unlikely the Bolshevik upper echelons were either aware or particularly concerned with this visit. At the time, a community of Russian political exiles existed in London. The delegates were almost certainly self-selected from amongst this coterie. Immediately, I turned to Ivan Maisky’s memoirs, but, alas, found no mention of a visit to Ireland. However, we can assume Maisky would have been reticent to include anything which could harm his diplomatic career, particularly a meeting with the forces angled against the very country he had built his career within. The memoir nonetheless helpfully reconstructs a world occupied by foot-soldiers of the world revolution who passed through London in 1916, including our friend Platon Kerzhentsev. Interestingly, Maisky’s recently published diaries, penned during his tenure as ambassador to Great Britain, contain some references to Ireland. One of which is a rather bizarre interchange between George Bernard Shaw and Stalin on the topic of Oliver Cromwell.
Another piece of the story appears in the 1921 text A Prisoner of the Reds,authored by Francis McCullagh, an Irish soldier who served in the Allied military intervention in the Russian Civil War. Embedded amongst Cossack troops during the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, McCullagh had a fluency in Russian that likely saved his skin during his later adventure in Soviet Russia. Much to his displeasure, he was captured by Bolshevik forces shortly after deployment to the British mission in Omsk. Nonetheless, McCullagh managed to convince his captors he was a journalist and set off across Russia to witness the birth of the new order. Arriving at the city of Ekaterinburg, McCullagh entered a Soviet propaganda hall. There he met ‘Comrade Kerzhentsev’ who he described as the ‘Bolshevik expert on Irish affairs.’ Kerzhentsev impressed upon McCullagh his knowledge of Irish history and further remarked that he had been in Dublin during Easter 1916. Kerzhentsev realised, McCullagh wryly noted, that he was much closer to ‘the Orange workman of Belfast’ than the ‘Catholic peasant of Tipperary.’ Now the head of the Soviet press agency, Kershentsev was adeptly mining Ireland’s War of Independence for propaganda gold.
A book published in the same year as McCullagh’s intrepid travel account, Aodh de Blacam’s What Sinn Fein Stands For, makes an oblique reference to the Irish-Russian encounter. De Blacam noted Dublin was ‘visited after Easter Week by some of the men who were prominent in bringing about the Bolshevik triumph.’ A character with a love of hyperbole and an occasional tendency to denounce former acquaintances as ‘demonic,’ de Blacam only ever achieved a tenuous link to reality. However, his work reveals knowledge of the Bolshevik visitation remained in the memory of certain figures of the Irish revolution.
Fortunately, I found a 1918 article from a more grounded source. Writing in the republican journal New Ireland, L.B Byrne, a Dublin theatre critic, applauded the Bolsheviks for joining in the ‘mud-slinging business’ of attacking the capitalist press. ‘We should applaud them all the more,’ wrote Byrne ‘as the editor of the official Soviet organ is a keen friend of Ireland and visited us immediately after the rising of 1916.’ Byrne’s statement further pointed to a Bolshevik visit having been undertaken and summoned the ghost of Kerhzentsev before me once more. If Little’s testimony is to be believed, L. P. Byrne’s links with the Russian Co-Operative Movement were central to bringing the Bolsheviks to Dublin. Indeed, a letter from the office of the aforementioned Maxim Litvinov, one of Maisky’s fellow exiles in London, was addressed to Byrne. This letter, residing in the National Library of Ireland, confirms Byrne had the connections necessary to become a conduit between London’s Bolsheviks and Dublin’s progressive circles.
The editor of Izvestia after the Russian revolution, referred to in Byrne’s 1918 article, was, of course, Platon Kerzhentsev. In a recent piece presenting new research on Soviet interpretations of the Rising, Brendan McGeever places Kerzhentsev in New York alongside the Irish poet Paraic Colum upon hearing the dramatic news from Dublin. Eoin MacWhite, an Irish diplomat who pioneered the study of Irish-Russian relations, first gleaned this information from an interview with Colum in the 1960s. In a remarkable account, Colum recalled how Kerzhentsev financed the poet’s homeward journey to witness the aftermath of the Rising. Soon, my research suggests, Kerzhentsev undertook his own journey to Dublin. Russian revolutionaries, like their Irish counterparts, were perpetual border transgressors; travelling internationally with varied intentions and under numerous pseudonyms. The paths leading this small group of Russian radicals to Dublin did not emanate from one place, but emerged from a synthesis of personal connections. Yet ultimately, all of the sources in this piece lead us to one individual.
An advert for Platon Kerzhentsev’s history of Ireland
Platon Mikhailovich Kerzhentsev, real name Lebedev, was one of the more eccentric Bolsheviks to rise to prominence after the October Revolution. Quickly ascending through the press apparatus, Kerzhentsev became a major figure in the Soviet cultural world. A playwright by profession, he pioneered many avant-garde Soviet attempts to reshape art, including the influential Proletkult movement. In Richard Stites’ towering history of utopian impulses in the Russian revolution, Kerzhentsev plays a cameo role. More recently, a fictionalised version of Kerzhentsev appeared in Julian Barnes’ novel The Noise of Time. A nexus of Soviet artistic thought, his immediate circle included some of the most famous figures in 20th century Russian culture. In fact, when a 1936 opera by Dmitri Shostakovich’s was denounced in the Soviet Press, it was Kerzhentsev who pulled the hapless composer into his office and advised him bring his music closer to proletarian sensibilities.
Even alongside these epoch-making diversions, Kerzhentsev retained his interest in Ireland. The final piece of my puzzle fell into place when I cross-referenced Kershentsev’s name with a bibliography of Soviet scholarship on Ireland. The first history of the Irish revolution penned by a Soviet historian was by none other than Kerzhentsev himself. His writings laid the groundwork for the historical study of Ireland in the Soviet Union.Revolutsiyannaya Irlandiya (Revolutionary Ireland) was the first of several texts written by Kerzhentsev on the subject of Ireland. Liberally referencing James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’sLife of Michael Davitt, Kerzhentsev also listed personal encounters with Irish revolutionaries as one of his sources. The Easter Rising was referred to as ‘Red Easter,’ a name that would echo throughout future Soviet scholarship on Ireland. Given that this cultured Bolshevik shared a boarding house with the aforementioned Paraic Colum in New York, it is interesting to note Kerzhentsev refers to the poet in his section on the Irish literary revival. A later updated version of Kerzhentsev’s text was published in 1936, presumably to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Rising. Kerzhentsev evidently based his writings on personal experience of the events and personalities.
What can we learn from this brief visit of Russian revolutionaries to Dublin? Like any capital, the urban landscape of Dublin was subject to the footfall of global citizens, ranging from the stalwarts of Empire to the rank and file of the world revolution. Many historians have narrowly pointed to a lack of mass-communication in this era to evidence insularity while ignoring the crucial role played by personal connections. Amongst Irish revolutionaries, as in any other set of radicals, these connections relayed news and ideas along global networks. The short time spent in Dublin by these Russian revolutionaries appears to have made a significant contribution to the Soviet study of Ireland, if nothing to the revolutions in both countries.
To conclude the story, I have translated Kerzhentsev’s account of the Easter Rising’s opening moments from his 1918 book:
Krasna Pashka (Red Easter), P. M. Kerzhentsev, 1918.
Easter Monday in Ireland — a day with an aura of reverence. Therefore, the arrival of a small group of Irish volunteers in the province did not give rise amongst individuals to any particular attention. The vigilance of the administration was weakened, even more so, many responsible people were on holidays due to Easter
Early in the morning the order of Pearse was published, scheduling the parade of volunteers for 10 am. At the same time there was an announcement all over the country “Dublin is begun. Pearse”
While the streets of Dublin were half-empty, a detachment of volunteers appeared in full combat preparedness, passers-by were not at all surprised: because they had seen enough of these parades. A large detachment of volunteers moved down the central street of the city, they encircled the post office, in a few minutes they captured it. The staff were removed. On the columns of the building they put the manifesto of the provisional government. That drew a crowd. It became clear to those who gathered that the uprising had begun. Applause could be heard and shouts of welcoming. Some old woman started to pray loudly, asking God to praise the cause of those uprising.
Once on the roof of the post office the flag of the Irish republic was unfurled, the sound of a new eruption of applause.
An English squad of rangers arrived and exchanged vollies with the Irish, then moved off. Afterwards Pearse marched out to gather at the post office and read out in a grand voice the proclamation of Ireland:
Note: What follows is Kerzhentsev’s translation of the 1916 proclamation. The piece is extremely faithful. He used poetic and archaic Russian forms to mirror the original’s belletristic content. The line ‘In the name of God,’ removed in later Soviet writings on the Easter Rising, was included.
** L.P Byrne wrote more frequently under his pseudonym ‘Andrew E. Malone,’ he is referred to here by his real name.
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