From The Spectator 2009
Reaching through the Iron Curtain
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. C’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.
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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 7, 2009
In the second part of our investigation into Labour’s dealings with the USSR, Pavel Stroilov reveals the secret Soviet diplomacy behind one leader’s most famous victory
Labour leaders, past and present, will be wishing this week that Anatoly Chernyaev had not been such an assiduous diarist. Along with thousands of documents left in the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the diplomat’s personal writings had lain forgotten for more than 20 years. Last week, extracts in The Spectator cast light on Labour’s ‘special relationship’ with the Kremlin and the various officials who begged for its help to fight the Conservatives.
This week, we reveal more documents from Soviet archives which show that relations between Britain’s Labour party and the USSR went even further — with Moscow playing a critical role in the finessing of the party’s policies on international affairs and defence. It was Chernyaev himself who instigated the duplication of archive documents when Gorbachev left office but, officially, they remain top secret. Digital copies were made, which were taken from the Gorbachev Foundation and smuggled, by me, to the West.
KINNOCK’S NUCLEAR TALKS
Neil Kinnock’s success in persuading Labour to change party policy from unilateral to multilateral nuclear disarmament in 1989 is often seen as his most celebrated achievement as party leader. Unilateralism, where Britain would scrap its nuclear weapons regardless of other nations’ arsenals, was an electoral millstone: voters just couldn’t understand why any country would do such a thing.
So Kinnock won much praise for his policy change and was applauded for rebuilding the party’s credibility with the voters. It was called Kinnock’s finest hour, the greatest victory in his long fight with the hard left to modernise the party.
It was the left he needed to convince in a packed meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee in May 1989, when he got his way by telling them: ‘I have gone to the Kremlin… and argued down the line for unilateral nuclear disarmament. They were totally uncomprehending that we should want to get rid of a nuclear missile system without getting the elimination of nuclear weapons on other sides.’
The Kremlin’s secret records suggest, however, that what he told his party that night may not have been the whole story. Indeed, rather than ‘arguing down the line’ for unilateralism, a full year before that critical vote, it appears that Labour members had already begun probing the Soviet administration to discover what their reaction would be if Labour changed its policy.
The Kremlin files suggest, in effect, that the Labour leadership was seeking Kremlin approval for a change to domestic party policy.
Egon Bahr, a West German politician who maintained clandestine contacts with the KGB throughout the 1970s and 1980s, met the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on 5 April 1988 in Moscow, and Kinnock’s name appears in the transcript of their conversation. Bahr says:
The Labour party has hitherto been categorically against purchasing those missiles from the United States. But the next elections in Britain won’t take place before 1991. By that time, huge spending will be made to purchase those weapons, and the first submarine would join the service between 1991 and 1993. So the Labour leadership believes they have to reconsider their position.
Kinnock wants to know how the Soviet Union would respond if he, Kinnock, stops the implementation of the Trident programme. Britain’s Labour party wants bilateral negotiations on this issue.
Gorbachev replied that he was working with the Americans to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons by the turn of the century, and wanted Britain to join multilateral talks at a later stage.
It is not clear if Bahr had been tasked by Kinnock to discover Gorbachev’s position.
Five months later, however, Kinnock did specifically seek discussions with the Kremlin and, curiously, he sent the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, Stuart Holland, to undertake them.
According to the Soviet documents, Holland ‘asked for the meeting at the request of Neil Kinnock’. Nor was this Holland’s first engagement with Russia. The diary of Anatoly Chernyaev records their conversation in November 1984:
Yesterday, I talked to Stuart Holland for four hours. He is a pedigree young Englishman, aged 44, author of ten books and many Labour documents and a shadow minister…
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. This included a promise that we will respond if Britain, indeed, rejects the nuclear weapons… He had something to report to Kinnock about.
When Holland returned to Moscow in August 1988 for a discussion with Vadim Zagladin, also of the Soviet International Department, nuclear weapons were on the agenda again.
This time, however, the policy Holland discussed was a rather different one. While he assured the Soviets that press speculation about a radical change of Labour’s defence policy was ‘unfounded’, there was to be a change; as Gorbachev himself had told Bahr, a policy of multilateral disarmament seemed more realistic than a unilateral one. According to the transcript, Holland then said:
‘The Labour party is currently preparing a new defence paper, which will be published in eight to nine months. The Labour concept will be perfectly clear from that paper, and that will be a concept of a nuclear-free Europe.’
Sure enough, nine months later, the Labour NEC approved Kinnock’s plans. None of these dealings with Moscow reveals any anxieties within the Labour leadership about how their party’s unilateralists would react, though Lord Kinnock explains that: ‘Until March 1989 only Gerald Kaufman and I, and our most immediate associates, had full knowledge of our approach — disclosure would have enabled opponents of change to organise resistance. In August 1988 Stuart Holland would have gathered that change from “solitary disarmament” was probable but certainly would have not known of the extent of change that I was determined to secure.’
But one thing is clear: by the time of the NEC vote, Moscow was already on side.
Neil Kinnock wasn’t the first senior Labourite to embark on sensitive discussions about Western defence plans with the Soviets. A report, again by Vadim Zagladin, records his discussions with Denis Healey, then shadow foreign minister, about the American Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) — the so-called Star Wars project — in May 1985:
Healey said that nobody except Reagan believes that the purpose of SDI is defending civilians. Experts and Pentagon specialists make it clear that the SDI’s purpose is to defend the positions of strategic missiles.
One of the questions [causing controversy] is the assumption, promoted by the US Defense Secretary, that the Soviet Union has achieved significant results in its own research on ‘Star Wars’. As a rule, two examples are given. One is about the laser technology research related to targeting space objects from the surface; the other is about the Krasnoyarsk radar.
In relation to the radar, Healey remarked that British intelligence disagreed with the Americans’ assessments and did not believe that the radar had the significance attributed to it.
Chernyaev’s diary also confirms that on the same visit Healey ‘was giving us tips of how we should handle Reagan to get something out of him’, and describes the Labour visitor as being relaxed and cheerful with his hosts. When The Spectator contacted Lord Healey, he admitted that the period represented a particularly troublesome time for the party: ‘Defence is always a very difficult thing for the Labour party because at one time we were committed to pacifism. Carrying on a nuclear policy based on an alliance with the United States was always very unpopular with one section of the party — the left. They made it very difficult, and regarded the US as a champion of capitalism and not to be worked with. That wasn’t my position at all.
‘As modernisers in the party we had to work against these people. The trade unionist Alec Kitson, for example, who was strongly sympathetic to the Soviets, was an absolute pain in the nether regions.’
Healey’s irritation with the flip-flopping approach of Britain’s left to international relations is clear from another of Chernyaev’s diary entries.
In a farewell session of speeches and cognac, Healey took the opportunity to tease Dave Priscott, the member of the delegation from the Communist Party of Great Britain, for being disloyal to Moscow. Chernyaev writes:
I had to say goodbye to both of them. We went to a guest room to have some cognac. I made some speeches, trying to joke, to prod. In response Healey spoke, and only at the very end he remembered about Priscott, turned to him and fired off roughly this: ‘I suppose, Comrade [Chernyaev’s emphasis] Priscott does not feel offended that I’ve spoken for both of us and have eaten up all the time remaining before the flight.’ Priscott started nodding, smiling pitifully and obsequiously. ‘But, I beg your pardon! Perhaps, after the recent events in your party and its upcoming emergency congress, I won’t be able to call you Comrade anymore, I’ll have to say “Mister”!’
Everybody laughed. But it was a brilliant move against the CPGB’s shift to anti-Sovietism.
Of course, history does not record what Priscott may have said when ‘comrade Healey’ became ‘Lord Healey’ in 1992. By then Britain’s extreme left were a marginal political force and the Soviet Union itself had disintegrated.
However, until all the Kremlin’s documents are released, the spectre of that crumbled empire will continue to haunt the left in Britain. Labour will be hoping there are precious few diaries among them.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 14, 2009