From Coniston to the Kremlin: Arthur Ransome’s Russian Adventures
Exhibition: Saturday 3 June until Sunday 3 September 2017 at The Ruskin Museum
Discover this much less familiar ‘life’ in this special exhibition at The Ruskin Museum, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of Ransome’s death on 3 June 1967, and the Centenary of the Russian Revolutions, which dominated the 20th century and .whose ripples are still felt across the world.
Arthur Ransome is best known today as the author of Swallows and Amazons, the classic children’s series that captures an idyllic childhood, mainly set in the factional Furness Fells and waters around Coniston – the author’s life-long spiritual home. But, in his autobiography, Ransome admits that he felt that he had lived through ‘snatches of a dozen lives’.
One of the most tumultuous and stirring – and, in retrospect, unlikely, even murky - of those ‘lives’ was lived between 1917 and 1924, from the Russian Revolutions until the death of Lenin.
In 1913, as a young Romantic, Arthur Ransome had headed to Russia to escape an unhappy marriage and a scandal that had led to a traumatic court case in response to his biography of Oscar Wilde: he went intending to research traditional story-telling through folk lore and fairy tales. He taught himself Russian, through studying children’s versions of the stories familiar in English translation.
From 1914, he reported on events on the Russian front in the First World War: he realised the strategic importance of the eastern front in drawing the enemy from the western front, where his younger brother was serving.
His reports advocated the urgent need for Britain and the allies to supply Russia with arms and resources. Horrendous defeats and terrible slaughter caused mass desertion, and harsh famine in the cities and blighted countryside, combined to breed civil unrest, and a desire for democracy, speedily evolving into revolution. Ransome, armed with the language skills and a great sympathy for the people of Mother Russia was thus in the in the right place at the right time to get himself embroiled in the Russian Revolutions of 1917.
An eye-witness to the joyous early Revolutionary days in March, and observer of the Bolshevik coup that followed in November, he found himself one of very few Englishmen – if not the only one - fluent in Russian, able to report exactly what was said without benefit of interpreters. He was soon working as the correspondent for two radical papers, the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian. Communicating via telegram pared his writing style down to the essentials: nothing superfluous, concise reports on actions and events, analysis of the emerging new politics, judicious local colour, all impacted on the author he became.
The British Establishment viewed him equivocally, uncertain of his loyalties because of his intimacy with the leaders of the Russian Revolutions. He gained regular access to Lenin and Trotsky. He played chess with them, chatting informally – and fell in love with Trotsky’s secretary, whom he eventually married, as his second wife.
At the same time, he stayed in close contact with MI6.
Result? Nobody trusted him, except his surrogate family, the Collingwoods of Coniston. W.G. Collingwood, [Ruskin’s right-hand-man, friend, confidant and first biographer; artist, antiquarian, archaeologist, Viking scholar]; and his son, Robin, [expert Roman archaeologist and leading Oxford Philosopher], both served in Admiralty Intelligence, as code-breakers, in Whitehall, through the First World War. Perhaps Ransome had two men, with connections, on his side.
The years between 1913 and 1924 were, according to a Guardian reviewer, “a crucial period of physical, emotional and intellectual exile through which Ransome finally came home”. To the Furness fells, and Coniston. He clearly demonstrated his own famous telegraphese maxim: ‘BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN’.
He survived his Russian experiences: he was aged forty-five when he started to write the first of the books that eventually brought him fame and fortune.