Sam Russell in 1962 with Che Guevara in Cuba – the two disagreed over the necessity for armed struggle
SAM Russell (originally Manassah Lesser) was born into an observant Yiddish-speaking Polish Jewish family in the East End of London in 1915. He was the eldest of eight children, four girls, four boys. He died in 2010.
Sam’s earliest political memory was of the 1926 General Strike. He was aged 11 and on his way out of an orthodox Jewish education, leading to a place at University College London to read Egyptology. Having been forcibly aware of the anti-Semitism where he grew up, and of the one political party that actively and effectively opposed it, he joined the Communist Party in 1934.
His first political action was to join the Officers’ Training Corps, although the CP was against such military organisations. Sam was actually at a British army camp when he heard about Franco’s attempted coup against the newly elected Republican government in Spain. Within a year he was one of the first volunteers, in October 1936.
The artist Felicia Browne was the first Briton to be killed in Spain in August that year. Sam notes her death, but has more memories of the charismatic Cambridge student and poet John Cornford, who inspired Sam to go to Spain when they met at CP headquarters at King Street, Covent Garden.
Separately they made their way to Spain as early as October 1936 and defended the Philosophy Faculty of Madrid University. Cornford was later killed the day after his own 21st birthday, the same day that Sam was badly wounded in the leg.
Sam writes painfully and vividly about it. By that time he had become the Daily Worker correspondent in Spain.
His devastating reports often read like those from present-day Ukraine, including the targeting of mothers and children.
Sam writes unsparingly about the war and defeat in Spain. His stories were often telephoned by him to a Daily Worker stenographer, and he reported to the bitter end on the final defeat and heavy bombing of Barcelona in 1939.
Although Sam’s memoir is entitled I Saw Democracy Murdered, only one of the 15 chapters of this book refers to the “murder of democracy”, and that is the Prague Spring of 1968. But that chapter also includes reports from Chile and from Poland. Hungary was another matter. Hungary in 1956 was far from a democracy. Sam was there, supporting Janos Kadar, the Soviet preference over the more democratic Imre Nagy, executed under Kadar in 1958. Sam has the generosity to mention Peter Fryer, his predecessor in Budapest for the Daily Worker, who refused to cut his copy to Soviet Russia’s demands, left the paper and published his account independently.
A more recent portrait of Russell. Photo: Marshall Mateer
Prague 1968 was different again. Sam had covered the 1953 murderous trials of Rudolf Slansky and other more liberal-minded, mainly Jewish communist leaders, opposed to being dictated to by the Soviets. Slansky, who Sam had known when in Moscow, and up to a dozen other defendants were tried, found guilty and executed.
The Daily Worker foreign editor Derek Kartun resigned and Sam took over. In a further Czech trial, ending in four death sentences, Sam admits to being “foolish and wilfully blind to what was going on”.
All this was good preparation for Sam’s next job as Daily Worker correspondent in Moscow, arriving there in December 1955 in good time for the Soviet Party’s 20th Congress early in 1956. This was the stage for Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes. Sam had early notice of this from two other Communist Party journalists in Moscow.
“I was astounded by the content. It was a moment of truth for all of us communists,” writes Sam, before reflecting on the effect it would have on the millions of Soviet citizens throughout Russia.
Sam stayed on in Moscow until the end of 1959, becoming a friend of the British diplomat and spy Donald Maclean, increasingly out of favour with the Soviets. Maclean later supported Soviet dissidents, and opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
In attempting to write an article on Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, for a Lenin anniversary, Sam learned that her book of memoirs, which he had read in English in England, had been banned from the Lenin Library in Moscow because it revealed her strong dislike of Stalin.
Another more literary work that was appearing in the West was Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, which came out in Italian at the end of 1957. Sam visited the author with a hard-line Swedish Moscow correspondent. Both were chastened by Pasternak for wanting to interview him about the book without having read it.
Sam’s difficult few years in Moscow were not the end of his time as foreign editor of the Daily Worker or, after 1966, the Morning Star. Before him he had meetings in 1962 with Che Guevara in Cuba, with whom Sam disagreed over the necessity for armed struggle, which he witnessed at first hand in Vietnam, probably the first British journalist to cross into the south from the north.
Sam made two visits to China, the first in 1954, the second in 1979 after the end of the so-called Cultural Revolution. During the first visit, his first assignment abroad as foreign editor of the Daily Worker, he travelled with a high-powered Labour Party delegation including Clement Attlee, then a former prime minister.
Sam says nothing about this visit, except that he saw the racism of the Russian towards the Chinese, which prepared him for the subsequent split between the two. On his second 1979 trip Sam was able to talk to survivors of the Cultural Revolution, but only with strict surveillance, so that neither the Chinese nor the British were happy.
Early in November 1970 the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, having gained just over 50 per cent of the votes, proceeded with its Socialist programme.
As Sam writes: “I was witness to the snuffing out of another Socialist experiment a few years later … this time in a different continent and by a different hand.”
Sam witnessed the bombing of the Moneda (the presidential palace) by the forces of Augusto Pinochet in September 1973. It seems a fitting end to the end of a staunchly loyal communist journalist who reported on good times and bad.
• I Saw Democracy Murdered – The Memoir of Sam Russell, Journalist. Edited by Colin Chambers. Introduction by Francis Beckett. Routledge, £34.99