Ransome first visited Russia in 1913, arriving at St Petersburg by steamer from Copenhagen with the intention of gathering material for a collection of Russian folk stories. At 29, he was disgruntled with England and his disastrous marriage to a solicitor’s daughter, and hoped that Russia might provide an escape. His love affair with Russia intensified after the First World War broke out and the red flag of revolution was seen to fly over the Winter Palace. With journalistic commissions from the London Daily News, Ransome began to file reports on the 1917 uprising. At this stage his purpose was simply to communicate Soviet views to the British public and vice versa; only later, when Lenin triumphed over the Kerensky government, did his political loyalties clarify.
A deep-dyed conservative, Ransome would have abhorred the notion of revolution in England, says Chambers. Yet in the prospect of Bolshevik mob rule he found a purpose and, it seems, vindication for childhood humiliations. Ransome’s father, a professor of history at Leeds, was an oppressive man, who tried to teach his son to swim, apparently, by throwing him over the side of a boat. At Rugby public school young Arthur was wretchedly unhappy. He developed a prickly, confrontational personality that made him hostile in the presence of authority. Among the Bolsheviks, however, in his Russian army great coat and astrakhan hat, he felt puffed out with rank and self-importance. Six Weeks in Russia in 1919, Ransome’s report on the conditions and characters of the revolution, was circulated by Soviet agents among Allied troops. His journalism meanwhile sought to reassure British readers about the levels of blood shed by the Bolsheviks. Soldiers were shooting their officers, yes, but they did so with admirable restraint.
As a token Red, Ransome was able to hobnob with most of the great revolutionaries of the time: Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, Vorovsky, almost all in the end murdered. He was mixing with top officials on the other side, too, and the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was quick to recruit him to its ranks. Few Englishman had such impeccable Bolshevik contacts or insider knowledge of the Kremlin. Whether Ransome also secretly served the interests of a power hostile to MI6 – Soviet Russia – is impossible to say as there is no evidence. As a rash, exuberant character of wavering convictions, however, he might easily have switched allegiances.
Tallinn was the ideal base for Ransome while Russia was in the news. It was the Baltic port closest to St Petersburg and known to be a centre for espionage, infiltrated by White Russian intriguers intent on blocking Soviet access to Baltic territories. Ransome stayed there in the Golden Lion Hotel (where Graham Greene would stay 10 years later in 1934) and continued his affair with Evgenia, his Bolshevik sweetheart. After Lenin’s death in 1924 and the emergence of Stalin as leader, however, his long drawn-out involvement with Russia began to dwindle.
Instead, he went boating in the Gulf of Finland and fished off the Tallinn archipelago during the pike-run. Much of his sailing experience in Baltic waters went into the children’s books he spent the rest of his life writing, but it would be 30 years before he set down the story of his Soviet adventures in a book, and another 20 before he realised he would never finish it. The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, was published posthumously in 1967; according to Chambers, the Russian chapters are a tissue of fabrication. Still, no other Englishman had seen the Bolshevik Revolution from such close quarters, or from such unusually confused allegiances, and this sombre biography absorbs from start to finish.
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome
By Roland Chambers
FABER, £20, 352pp
Available from Telegraph Books 0844 871 1516