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Reaching through the Iron Curtain

In the pages of the Kremlin’s secret diary, Pavel Stroilov discovers what Labour’s Soviet sympathisers said when they thought no one was listening

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

In the pages of the Kremlin’s secret diary, Pavel Stroilov discovers what Labour’s Soviet sympathisers said when they thought no one was listening

It is almost 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall — and still the truth keeps trickling out of Moscow. The Soviets, like the Nazis, were meticulous note-keepers and there is decades worth of material still to be uncovered. At first, only those who went through the filing cabinets could compile the untold stories of the USSR. But now that these records are being digitised, scrutinising them becomes a lot easier. And this is how I came across the extraordinary diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev.

For years he was the Soviet Union’s contact man with the West. But from the 1970s onwards he met the British politicians who went looking for favours behind the Iron Curtain — and recorded every encounter in his journal. He was a deputy in the Soviet International Department (a successor to the Comintern) and latterly an adviser to Gorbachev himself. His diaries in the Gorbachev era have been translated in Washington. But his liaisons with British politicians in the Cold War era have never been made fully public — until now.

They tell the story of a ‘special relationship’ between the British Labour party and the Soviet Communists — stretching out over decades. They show MPs who thought the USSR posed no strategic threat to their country. They show a reverential approach of the party’s leaders to their Russian ‘comrades’; their identifying of Margaret Thatcher as a common enemy to be ‘beaten’; and their frantic pleading with the regime to provide access to, among others, Brezhnev — but only for the sake of appearances.

These are not the sensationalist, publicity-seeking memoirs of a minor aide. Chernyaev’s authority is unquestionable. Svetlana Savranskaya, Director of Russia Pro-grammes at the US National Security Archive (which holds the diary) describes it as ‘the single most authoritative source on Soviet policy-making in the last 20 years of the Cold War’. They have not come to light before because the pre-1985 entries had never been translated.

Chernyaev himself is now aged 88, living outside of Moscow, and pleased that his diaries from this era are being published. ‘Over here there are very few academics or journalists who are interested in my text,’ he said by telephone. ‘This great period in the history of our country has been crossed out.’ Until now.

A COMMON ENEMY

Edward Short, now Lord Glenamara, is, at 93, the oldest member of Britain’s parliament. But in 1973 he was Harold Wilson’s deputy — and en route to Moscow. Chernyaev describes his visit that year, when the Heath government was flailing. Short led a delegation of Labour dignitaries on a visit to the Kremlin, including party chair William Simpson, general secretary Ron Hayward, and a few other MPs and apparatchiks eager for face-time with General Secretary Brezhnev and his Foreign Minister Gromyko — a media coup they hoped would help them defeat Heath. Chernyaev’s entry from 6 June shows he was clearly amused. He quotes them as saying:

‘We came here as a political party which wants to be in power. If you, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, want a Labour government in Britain, help us. We have to be received by Brezhnev and Gromyko. Even if for five minutes. It only matters for us that we saw them and we can tell the press about it. Discussions, of course, would be good. We are even willing to listen to your recommendations on our new foreign policy program. But the main thing is support for the prestige for the Labour party from your side. At the London airport, tens of journalists came to see us off, and they are waiting gloatingly for our return. Unless you meet us halfway, all of England will be laughing at us for a week. And we will most likely lose the upcoming general elections.’

The message was clear: either they deliver Brezhnev or face another four years of a Conservative government. The Soviets saw their chance, and arranged a high-profile reception, but not without slightly humiliating their guests — they were taken to Brezhnev’s empty office.

GENERAL SECRETARY HAYWARD

In any event, Labour won the general election later that year — and this is how the Soviet ‘détente’ with Britain began. Like in Germany several years before, it was based on a party-to-party partnership between socialists of different shades. And a central figure in this was Ron Hayward, the general secretary of the Labour movement between 1972 and 1982. On 5 December 1974, Chernyaev describes in his diary an exciting KGB operation to smuggle him inside the Labour party conference, and then whisk Hayward into the Soviet embassy for a quiet chat. Hayward, once described as the ‘Solomon’ who held the Labour movement together in this period, was feeling divisive:


We came back to the Soviet embassy. Kubeikin (cultural attaché, who is actually the KGB) told us what was going on at the Labour conference. He had turned on the jamming, as the embassy is ‘under fire’ from antenna bugs from every side. We arranged that he ‘confirms everything with Hayward’ the next morning […]

[In the conference hall] we ran into [Edward] Short, the deputy party leader, who had been in Moscow with the Labour delegation in 1973. He stared at us for a moment and then pretended he did not see us. That is very English. Apparently, he instantly guessed these were Hayward’s games. If he said hello, he would have to ‘react’ now or later.

In the evening we were in the Soviet embassy, waiting for Hayward. Kubeikin brought him. Hayward immediately began speaking about the conference, and how he has managed to put more pressure on the right-wingers, on the government. As he told us in Moscow and repeated now, he believed the point of his work as General Secretary was to provide a ‘genuine socialist government’ for Britain. To achieve that, he must break the Labour Cabinet and the parliamentary party’s tradition for disregarding conference resolutions and accepting no control from the National Executive Committee. He has done a lot to increase the NEC’s role and authority, taking advantage of the current left-wing flood in the party — it is unusually steady this time. This is why he has an escalating row with [Prime Minister] Wilson, who was his friend when they were young. (When Hayward began his speech at the first session, Wilson stood up and left the room, to come back just after it finished.)

This is also why he [Hayward] is now committed to developing links with the CPSU.

So Hayward envisioned a real Soviet-style system in Britain: with the Party General Secretary — not the MPs’ leader — at the top. Chernyaev’s diary says he would refer to himself as the party leader. Or, specifically, as ‘the first Labour leader in history who is not afraid to come out alongside communists with the same agenda’, Chernyaev quotes. He even stated later in that meeting that Hayward ‘prepares young people, puts them in the right places, helps them to become prominent’. Such was the backdrop to the civil war that would then engulf the Labour party where the pro-communist faction crushed moderates and Trotskyites.

THE ‘PEACE MOVEMENT’

By the late 1970s it became clear that the USSR could no longer compete on an equal footing in the Cold War arms race, which perhaps explains their support for organisations such as the ‘World Peace Council’. A separate tranche of Soviet secret documents, obtained by Vladimir Bukovsky, claims that the left’s ‘peace campaign’ in the e
arly 1980s was secretly orchestrated from Moscow. Chernyaev’s diary certainly chimes with this analysis. On 7 August 1981, for example, he complains he had a ‘terrible day’ working on ‘fuel for the anti-missile movement in West Europe’ and writing ‘coded cables’ to British Labour and Communist parties.

COMRADE FOOT

More recently Michael Foot has successfully sued newspapers who claimed he was somehow a Soviet ‘agent of influence’. But Chernyaev’s diaries show that the former Labour leader was by no means hostile to the Soviets. In October 1981 he led a big delegation to Moscow, to discuss Britain’s unilateral disarmament. Chernyaev notes ‘the Labour party’s metamorphosis: pragmatism, cynicism, frankness…’

‘Dear Comrade Brezhnev’, Foot said while shaking Brezhnev’s hand with both of his hands — this created the right inertia from the start. […] All of them liked each other and ‘parted as friends’. The General Secretary then ordered us to give them presents, which turned out to be pretty expensive.

KINNOCK AND CHARLES CLARKE

All this repeated itself three years later, after Foot was succeeded by Neil Kinnock, and Brezhnev by the completely senile Konstantin Chernenko. Kinnock came to Moscow accompanied by, among others, the young Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt. Here is Chernyaev’s account, dated 1 December 1984:

Chernenko just read his brief and listened indifferently to Kinnock’s oratorical response. But then, in spite of all my preliminary work, Kinnock began to harass him with probing questions. The smell of confusion spread in the air. […] The Englishmen realised that they had crossed the line and began to retreat. For they had already received the most important promises they needed for politics at home, against Thatcher.

Chernyaev records how Charles Clarke, then Kinnock’s chief of staff, wanted to mention human rights in the communiqué. However, the Soviets said it was ‘awkward’ to ‘extort human rights’ on the top of such generous disarmament promises.

In fact a year later the party would seek Soviet advice once more, when Neil Kinnock sent his shadow minister for overseas development to the Kremlin. Chernyaev records: ‘We have discussed everything with him. I took it upon myself to promise him (in “preliminary order”, of course) everything they wanted from us, to beat Thatcher and get to power.’

ALEC KITSON AND THE KGB

Politicians like Foot or Kinnock, however, did not have the closest connections with the USSR. In those years, the Labour party was effectively controlled by its affiliated trade unions — and that is where the KGB and the International Department aimed to infiltrate. Today, we know that the union leader Jack Jones, once regarded as the most powerful man in Britain, was a KGB agent for most of his life. He was exposed by his last case officer, Colonel Oleg Gordievsky — the most famous MI6 agent in the KGB. Jones’s trade union — Transport and General Workers (T&G) — was the most powerful one in the Labour party. Its block vote covered 18 per cent of the total at annual conferences, and it effectively controlled dozens of safe Labour seats in parliament. Furthermore, T&G was notoriously undemocratic, with the General Secretary enjoying almost dictatorial power, and its political activity controlled by Jones’s unelected deputy, Alec Kitson. On 5 April 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Chernyaev saw Kitson in Moscow:

I had prepared all thinkable arguments concerning Afghanistan, but he did not wish to hear them. ‘I don’t need to be persuaded,’ he said, ‘I understand everything without it, but I am “marked”. As “a Soviet agent” and “a traitor”, I simply won’t be listened to. As for you, none of you are ever there to be heard. The embassy is doing nothing. And if there are any Soviet visitors, they are only interested in buying another pair of trousers.’

He was quite drunk already, after seeing Soviet trade unionists. That is why he was violent and rude. There was a ‘fuck’ in about every sentence. I was ironic, joked, tried to insert the prepared arguments. As he was getting soberer, it became possible to get some particular things out of him. So, what we have agreed:

(a) We will send some clever guys to the Scottish Trade Union Congress. There will be an audience arranged for them and they will be able to deliver the Soviet point of view;

(b) He will try to gather trade union functionaries in London, and the same guys will carry out a ‘discussion’ with them;

(c) I will write a private letter to Jenny Little (the secretary of Labour NEC’s International Committee, ‘a pretty bitch, but can do business, and in love with you,’ — Kitson’s words), suggesting an unofficial discussion, either in London or in Moscow, at our level, i.e. the one of party apparatchiks.

By the way, Jenny Little appears in the diary time and again as quite a romantic figure. On 19 November 1977, Chernyaev describes his meeting with Kitson and Little in the Soviet embassy in London: ‘Jenny got drunk, cried, and kept trying to force a kiss on me. It took quite a time to pack them off.’

And this is about a T&G reception on the eve of 1980 Labour conference in Blackpool (6 October): ‘Jenny Little even looks pretty, but she is really too skinny. She tried to seat me down next to Callaghan, but he bypassed me as if I was a column. She herself was embarrassed.’

On the whole, however, the communist infiltration of the T&G is hardly a joking matter: its influence in the Labour party was substantial. The decision to give Gordon Brown his first and only safe seat, Dunfermline East, was made by two T&G officials: Hugh Wyper, the regional boss and a Communist Party member, and Alec Kitson. This is not exceptional. Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman, John Reid — to name just a few — were all T&G people who made their Labour party careers thanks to the union’s backing. And at that time, of course, T&G political backing was within the gift of Alec Kitson. Chernyaev only saw part of the story however. Other documents, still secret, show Labour’s Soviet relationships ran still deeper.

Additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva.

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