By Maurice Casey |
In a recent review of Michael Seidleman’s cultural history of the Spanish Civil War, Rob Stradling chastised Seidleman’s ‘insatiable appetite for archival anecdotes.’ Navigating the strange world of Irish-Soviet connections, I frequently come across weird archival finds that I try my best to weave into my narrative. Examples include the playwright Denis Johnston being detained at the Soviet border after bringing a nudist magazine into the USSR and the baffled response of several IRA chiefs to a Soviet play staged in Dublin. Stradling’s point gave me pause for thought. Was I giving undue import to events simply due to their eccentricity? Mounting a sustained defence of the archival anecdote is probably unnecessary, though it’s worthwhile unearthing a singular example from the Moscow archives to explore the merits of esoteric primary source finds.
Early one morning in February 1935, at 4:30 am, an inebriated Irish student was caught attempting to ascend the wall of his student accommodation after a night on the town. A familiar story, right? But this wasn’t an ordinary town, and it wasn’t your regular Irish student. The individual in question was Comrade Gordon, a member of the Communist Party of Ireland, and his place of study was the Moscow headquarters of the International Lenin School, a training-ground for the foot soldiers of the world revolution. Brought before the disciplinary board of the school, Gordon was invited to offer a rationalisation for his conduct. Curiously, school culture dictated that such an explanation could only be delivered through the medium of a Marxist-Leninist rereading of his life story. Of course, we can laugh at the lengths the Soviets went in their quest for an ideological interpretation of absolutely everything, extending in this case to a night on the lash. However, ideology is too often viewed as simply a byword for bias. Perceiving it as a tool by which individuals genuinely understood their world is a more enriching approach.
The disciplinary session continued throughout the night of February 17th as the unfortunate Comrade Gordon was compelled to give a dialectical analysis of his attempt to drunkenly scale a wall. The breach of discipline, Gordon conceded, was rooted in an ‘alien ideology which I have brought from my own country.’ Soviet ideology had a particular fixation on ‘alien’ aspects that would take a darker turn in the late 1930s with the xenophobic bent of the Great Terror. For now, however, Gordon was merely explaining how his Irish background had sent him up a Moscow wall. ‘As our own party is young and weak’ Gordon continued ‘it is not surprising that the National movement is subjected to petty-bourgeois influences.’ Ultimately, the disciplinary board agreed with Gordon’s analysis that ideological impurities within the Irish communist movement were to blame for the student’s night time antics.
Was Gordon simply performing a role expected of him? Or did he genuinely believe that the reason for his infringement was discernible in the teleological determinants of Marxian theory? Given the absence of personal papers, we will likely never know for sure. Nonetheless, making an educated guess, I would suggest the latter is more likely. One of the great surprises of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the wide scale opening of its archives was how deeply unsurprising the revelations were. Kremlinologists had trained themselves to read between the lines of Russian papers to ask what the Soviets really felt and believed. Disappointingly, the experts discovered they had been staring their answer in the face all along. Communists in Russia, as elsewhere, spoke much the same way in private as they did in their public exhortations. If Comrade Gordon were a diligent Bolshevised student (and we can assume from the ideological cogency of his answer that he was) then he likely integrated the semantics of communism into his everyday life. The peculiar story of an Irish student attempting to reach his Moscow bed in a state of intoxication therefore reveals its historical usefulness: a brief insight into the remarkable lived experience of international communism. Ultimately, an insatiable appetite for archival anecdotes is a positive thing indeed.
[This piece is based on a document found in: Russian State Archive for Social and Political History, Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii (RGASPI) f. 531 op.1 d.13-14.]
Maurice Casey is a graduate student at Hughes Hall, Cambridge. His research explores the diaries, letters and travelogues of Irish visitors to the Soviet Union during the interwar period.
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