Blood Red Snow White
Attitude: Some Care Needed → Unobjectionable
In Brief: Well-crafted semi-biography of Arthur Ransome's life in Russia around the time of the Revolution. Accepted marital infidelity. Some description of the sexual excesses of Rasputin and others. Love for a country not one's own. Courage in crossing war-torn countries in difficult conditions.
Published in: 2007
Age Range: Young Teens+
Period: Early 20th C
Arthur Ransome is a young English journalist based in Russia during the Great War who is used by both sides to carry information and messages to and fro. Estranged from his own wife, he falls in love with Trotsky's secretary and must find a way for them both to escape Russia as the White armies move in.
As it happens, I was planning a series review of Swallows & Amazons when I came across this book in the newly-released section in the library. While the author asserts that it is a fictionalised account of the activities of a certain young journalist in Russia, he makes it clear that is is Arthur Ransome's life he is talking about. Ransome is best known — for most people only known — for his enduring series about the Walker, Blackett and Callum children in the Lakes, the Broads and elsewhere. Yet before he sat down to write those stories, based around Coniston where he had grown up, he'd already lived through more than most people ever would, an amount of which has only come to light recently with the opening up of certain Secret Service files.
If you look at the cover notes on any edition of Swallows & Amazons, you'll find that Arthur Ransome wrote a book called Old Peter's Russian Tales, a retelling of various Russian folk stories through the device of Peter, an old woodsman in the heart of Russia. Sedgwick uses this same device to open this book, cleverly segueing into the unrest of the Russian poor and their uprising against the aristocracy. Into these troubled times comes Arthur Ransome, a young journalist for the Daily News. He becomes acquainted with Trotsky and with Lenin, leaders of the new Russia, and with Trotsky's secretary Evgenia.
From that point he is, at first unwittingly but later knowingly, playing a dangerous double game, driven by his own beliefs as to how the British should treat the Bolsheviks. Over the next few years he becomes something of a spy in a time when to be a spy involved no glamour at all and plenty of danger. Yet, as a Russian-speaking journalist he travels everywhere with a suitcase and a typewriter, on one occasion walking across no-man's land smoking a pipe because “no-one would shoot a man smoking a pipe”. Both sides mistrust him — and with reason — but his loyalty is a complex matter, involving the Russia he is always drawn to, himself and the woman he loves.
Which brings us to the attitude of the times — at least as presented by the author — to marital infidelities. Ransome and his diplomat friend Lockhart are both married but their wives are back in England and little love is lost in either relationship. Both men take Russian women as mistresses and the only difference, as explained by Lockhart, is that his own position as a diplomat is such that he can't so publicly sustain his adultery. Ransome is estranged from his own wife who seems to suffer from some kind of depression or paranoia, but he loves his daughter and puts her happiness before his own on some occasions.
The narrative is well-crafted, using at first the almost cinematographic device of a Russian fairy tale to introduce the reader to the situation in Russia at the time and, eventually, to Ransome himself who wrote down such tales. Rasputin comes into the story of the Romanovs larger than life, and his sexual excesses are dwelt upon a little and to some extent described, as is the homosexuality of one of the officials who ultimately arranges to have him killed.
The central section of the book covers Ransome's growing awareness of his use as a spy and messenger to both sides, the increasingly difficult conditions in Russia after the Revolution, and the hostility and suspicion he faces back in England where he is regarded as a Bolshevik sympathiser and spy. With some justification. It is only when he sees the brutal actions of the Bolshevik soldiers that he has second thoughts about supporting the regime.
The final section of the story is more down-to-earth and involves Ransome's adventures as he finds it increasingly difficult to cross Eastern Europe back into a Russia which is fighting with itself. He undertakes an extraordinary journey through Estonia into Russia and then out again, using subterfuge, daring and sheer bluff to make his way out with his Russian lover.
In many respects this is a story of courage and of an outlook which takes one outside the small world of one's own upbringing. The character of Arthur Ransome must face difficult decisions, on one occasion turning down a job from Lenin himself, on another risking much to return to Russia. The pity is that his love for his own wife grew cold so that he turned to the warmth of another.
- Russia before and after the Revolution
- The author of Swallows & Amazons
Saturday 27th October 2007