‘The Bolsheviks are coming’: the haunting of the Empire from London to Calcutta

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

That sinking feeling
At four o’clock in the afternoon on the
last day of 1917, the British war cabinet met in Downing Street to consider the
new Bolshevik regime’s peace proposals to Germany. Despite suspicions directed
at both the Germans and the Bolsheviks, it was recognised in a climate of war
fatigue that the latter sought a ‘Just Peace’. When the war cabinet reassembled
the following day the tone had changed. The Bolsheviks, it was felt, had a
programme of their own; inimical to British interests, they were probably
advocating the cause of the enemy. This preliminary judgment on New Year’s Day
1918 would henceforth penetrate all such discussions, fuelled from the top and
taken up by news agencies to manufacture public consent. Informed by prosaic
considerations as well as xenophobic stereotyping, official perceptions and
policies were supported and reinforced in the public sphere through networks of
newspaper reports and informal rumours. The Bolsheviks were initially projected
as Germany’s agents, and after the fall of Germany as its successor as public
enemy. In fact, Britain’s rulers recognised, as contemporary records show, that
the Bolsheviks were not a creation of the Germans, that the Kaiser Reich was
interested in crushing them in the near future and that the Bolsheviks had not
artificially fomented the mass upheavals in Russia. Rather, they had given a
coherent political direction to the chaotic protests against the tsarist
autocracy and a feeble provisional government.

From the Whitehall Gardens in London to
the Elysium Row headquarters of the Calcutta police, the spectre of Bolshevism
haunted the British authorities at the end of the First World War and in its
immediate aftermath. From Cairo to Shanghai, and across South Asia, cities
falling within the orbit of formal and semi-formal colonialism were seen by
Imperial policy-makers and intelligence-gatherers as susceptible to Bolshevik
‘propaganda’. The anti-imperialist and internationalist appeal of Bolshevism
was interpreted as a source of deep danger to the empire of capital. In
November 1918, the month of the armistice, the British government decided,
alongside other Allied powers, to invade Russia. The step was taken in
trepidation of internal opposition to continuing the war by another name. A
propaganda war against Bolshevism among the ‘inflammable’ British workers was deemed
expedient. By the following July, as counter-revolutionary forces met with
reverses, the cabinet was sharply divided. Winston Churchill, the war secretary
and a champion of direct military intervention, felt that asking the Bolsheviks
for an armistice meant disaster; ‘He could not conceive that we could sink so
low’. Lloyd George, the premier, urged an exit strategy. His position was
probably informed by intelligence reports on counter-revolutionary armies,
especially the Polish contingents, as a hopeless, brutish and corrupt bunch of
anti-Semites and self-seekers who were alienating the local populace and
driving them into the arms of the Bolsheviks. Though the British forces were
withdrawn, support continued to be given to Kolchak, Denikin and the Polish
forces till they collapsed. It was nevertheless admitted by early 1920 that
Britain could not commit troops in Russia since a revolutionary situation had
emerged within the empire due to militant strikes and uproar against colonial
rule, from Ireland to Egypt to India.
While conservatives debated whether or
not to negotiate with their ideological nemesis, there was consensus among all
fractions of the ruling class on the pressing need to safeguard the empire from
its influence. In-house differences over cautious and militant strategies
vis-a-vis Bolshevism thus converged to produce a stable network of long-term
intelligence gathering on communism. The voices of moderation took advantage of
the extremist voices to legitimise imperialism in rational tones.
Anti-Bolshevik surveillance, as the scheme became loosely known in official
circles, originated in the existing system of policing political opponents
which it combined with new policies adopted in the wake of the revolution. It
was a micro-structure within the wider institution of imperial
surveillance.  In the propaganda war
against Bolshevism, the paradoxes of liberal imperialism unravelled, and there
were clashes with, and simultaneous adjustments to, the more xenophobic forms
of self-preservation.  
The widespread anti-establishment
feelings within Britain were cited to bring the measures into force. As the
British state was preparing to deploy troops to Russia, attention fell on
pockets of British workers sympathetic to Bolshevism, and on the hostility
among the poor towards the government. The state feared that the internal
social situation could become even more volatile and the popular mood turn
violently anti-establishment after the formal termination of the war. Though
force and legal prosecution were not to be ruled out as viable options for
dealing with dissent, policy-makers felt that it was more important to persuade
and convince people that ‘Bolshevism rather than the Government’ was the real
‘enemy’. Rather than tight censorship, counter-propaganda was advocated,
emphasising the aberrant presence of a malevolent external force.
The case of Lionel Britton (1887-1971), a
neglected leftist writer of working-class origin, revealed the anxieties and
perceptions guiding the British establishment. Britton had been a ‘conscientious
objector’ during First World War and was arrested as an absentee on 21 October
1918. He was believed to have been harboured by the British Socialist Party,
and was in possession of a typewriter belonging to the Food Commission and a
stolen bicycle. There were also letters to a Harry Humphries of 27 Camac
Street, Calcutta which were quoted as ‘an indication of the state of mind of
some of the people who are members of the British Socialist Party:
Harry … I’m jolly glad to hear of your homecoming … if you call this blasted
country home. … The question now is which of us can last out the longest,
Germany, the British Empire, or L.B.  I
have had to follow some of their methods or I should have succumbed before
this. I have now definitely decided to become a thief. I make sure of at least
one meal a day free … It’s the only blessed earthly way one can live. These
filthy stinking thieves, OBEs etc., have overrun the country. Honesty is now a
punishable offence. Absolutely the only way to keep out of gaol is to thieve.’
Britton confessed to stealing an Onoto
fountain pen at the British Museum to replace the one he had lost. He felt
guilty for trespassing on the public ‘flavour’ of the museum space. He claimed
the war had completely demoralised him and the ‘dirty filthy swine’, who could
afford fountain pens and believed in compulsory enlistment, should have been
killed if it was safe to do so. He went on to say he had ‘committed no
murders’. Yet he had come to experience, influenced by the climate of war, ‘an
extraordinary effect of the cheapness of human life’. If he had been ‘willing
to accept the blessing of the Church’, he ‘should now be ankle deep in blood’, a
prospect that revolted him. He called for an understanding of the pathology of
state by advocating a serious ‘study the application of bacteriology to
politics’.  Britton’s letter, bristling
with irony and dejection, was also a conscious attempt to present the petty
violations of private property as desperate self-help measures in hard times.
But these individual views, feelings and acts were seen by officials as
‘dangerous’, containing the seeds of collective upheaval against the existing
order in future.
Bolshevism was projected as an
unspeakable and insidious aberration flowing in from outside. The fictive and
practical interpretations emanating from official readings enabled the British
authorities to promote it as the root cause of post-war global afflictions
besetting the empire of capital, from economic inflation to labour protests.
Popular xenophobic ideologies, deplored in secret cabinet meetings, were given
currency in the propaganda war against Bolshevism. This exposed the paradoxes
of liberal imperialism which contradicted and simultaneously accommodated more
extreme currents. Institutional and socially widespread anti-Semitism was
harnessed to depict the Russian Revolution as a Jewish conspiracy. The
unsophisticated Asian counterpart of the cosmopolitan, wandering ‘Jewish
Bolshevik’, in the official imagination, was the ‘Muslim Bolshevik fanatic’.
Though occasional reports stressed on the need to win over the Muslim
populations within the British Empire, an official stamp was given to existing
racist stereotypes of Islam as a religion of dangerous, seditious agitators.
Jews and Muslims, it was emphasised, were the peripatetic carriers of
subversive ideologies like Bolshevism since their transterritorial convictions
could absorb the principles of communist internationalism.  As one report observed:
danger of this [Bolshevik] propaganda consists in the idea of internationalism.
This theory enables the Bolsheviks to find accomplices and allies in the most
unexpected places outside Russia – in battleships, wireless stations, military
barracks, post offices, consulates, palatial hotels and mansions. The result is
that no one holding a responsible position in a non-Bolshevik country can be
sure that he has not in his employ an embittered subordinate sometimes with a
genuine grievance against society and a genuine belief in communism as a cure
for all the ills in the world … ‘
The Bolshevik Menace was perceived by the
government as a pathological disorder with a global reach, comparable to the
influenza pandemic of 1918. The case of Lionel Britton also showed how
opponents of capital and empire could be reading existing authority through the
lens of ‘bacteriology’. Since the flu resulted in mass death on a global scale,
its familiar imagery triggered horror and insecurity.
In official speeches Bolshevism became a
virus and an epidemic: a political threat infecting minds and actions of
workers and intellectuals from outside. It was also projected as a strain that
could combine with other anti-imperialist currents and mutate into a force of
fearsome opposition. A Bolshevik or a supporter of Bolshevism was necessarily
an alienated outsider, equipped to corrode the body-politic of a healthy
empire.  Lenin and the ‘Bolshevik
standpoint’ were described in apocalyptic terms in a confidential report from
May 1920, when the Anglo-Russian negotiations had formally begun:
has no thought for humanity, no shrinking from the disasters with which his
policy may afflict it in the intermediate stage. To him, leaning upon the rim
of the world, wars and pestilences, should they come, merely usher in a new
age. Compared with the establishment of the regime of Individual Liberty and
Capitalism they are not disastrous, but transitory wisps of cloud which will
clear. He is not unwilling that they should come, for they are among the former
things that must pass away. They are instrumental merely, to be taken up and
laid down like an artificer’s tools … One shrinks from the conclusion; but
Lenin’s inhuman aloofness may have set the intricacies of the European
situation in a true perspective, and his calculation that he will have his way
whether the peoples fight or refuse to fight, has an appearance of foresight
which is both disquieting and sinister.’
It was registered that the Bolsheviks
ruled with a degree of mass support and the Red Army had become a highly
trained and organised force in the course of the Civil War. The idea of
negotiating with the Bolsheviks gained ascendancy, and in February 1920 Lloyd
George insisted in a speech before the Commons that the civil war in Russia
could not continue forever. He advocated future commercial relations to ‘bring
Russia back to sanity by trade’ and declared: ‘We must use abundance to fight
anarchy.’ It was this view that prevailed, and talks began in May 1920 which
concluded ten months later with an Anglo-Soviet commercial treaty.  The fear of imminent Bolshevik ‘invasion’ of
prize colonies such as India, through the land routes of Central Asia,
Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier, was henceforth to be superseded by
anxieties over ideological ‘infiltration’.
Colonial policing and the
comedian who never arrived
No identifiable left formation was
visible between 1918 and 1921 in imperial outposts, such as Calcutta. Yet, from
the end of 1919, an anti-Bolshevik surveillance scheme was put in place
following discussions between the central authorities in Delhi and the local
authorities. It was felt that in a cosmopolitan port-city surrounded by an
industrial belt and peopled with workers, Bolshevik agents and literature would
find a haven unless checked in advance. While local authorities reported that
the Bolsheviks had not yet arrived, but would make their presence known once labour
became organised, the centre took no chances. The local intelligence was asked
to compile watch reports on activities of individuals and organisations
suspected of Bolshevik sympathies. These reports were then incorporated into a
confidential monthly bulletin of the Home Political Department in Delhi, which
was circulated within India and regularly sent to London. The reports mostly
concentrated on the nationalist and labour upsurge and individuals who had
little to do with Bolshevism. The central authorities created two official
positions within the Criminal Intelligence Department to deal with the
‘Bolshevik Menace’. However, the administration in Calcutta was reluctant to
appoint a local ‘Anti-Bolshevik Officer’. Instead it proposed the expansion of regular
policing and the entrustment of an existing officer with the monitoring of this
tendency. There was agreement with the central administrators that Bolshevism
could be interpreted in a ‘loose way’ as subversive ideas and radical actions
directed against the existing social order and political authority. Where they
differed was regarding the presence of Bolshevik activists or organisation.
Over-emphasising an invisible threat was not favoured, and the Chief Secretary
to the Government of Bengal gently chided the central authorities for their
‘loose’ use of the term:
gather that the Bengal Police, at all events, know nothing of any emissaries
charged with spreading the principles of Bolshevism and the establishment of
Soviet rule. We have had cases of convicted Bolsheviks landing at Calcutta, but
I understand there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they were charged
with any mission.’
He wryly observed if an officer went
around looking for Bolsheviks, local Bolsheviks would indeed appear.  Amid boasts by the local police of having
personnel trained in latest methods at Scotland Yard and well-equipped to deal
with any potential danger, a compromise was reached.  Two inspectors were appointed as ‘Bolshevik Guards’
and watch reports on local protests were regularly sent to the central
Anti-Bolshevik officer in charge of collating such news.  This step was combined with enforcement of
strict passport control at the Calcutta Port. The banning and censorship of imported
and locally produced periodicals and books deemed radical were also seen as
effective measures. 
During the enforcement of the special
surveillance scheme in 1920, the local intelligence, conforming to the demands
of the imperial authorities in London and Delhi, regularly sent reports on
suspected Bolsheviks spotted in the docks and different neighbourhoods. Their
targets were generally individual visitors who fitted certain stereotypes
related to class, race, gender, ethnicity and politics.The volume of reports on
Bolshevik agents increased that year since the imperial authorities
specifically asked for them. Through guidelines sent in 1919, closely following
instructions from London, on a potential ‘ingress’ of Bolshevik ‘agents’ and
literature into India, the specific parameters of anti-Bolshevik surveillance
were being set.  To keep up with the
demand, reports drawing on the experiential and mythic and bordering on the
curious and the fantastic were supplied by local intelligence agents. Random impressions
were rarefied into facts of interest. Slices of daily life, isolated from other
mundane aspects, became staples of political policing. They enveloped police
accounts in a haze of hearsay and stereotypes. Versions of events and
descriptions of individuals were concocted and embroidered.
The point is perhaps best made through
individual examples. In early 1920, a certain Madam Dass was watched for a
while. The male gaze of the agents followed her across the city. She was
described as a prosperous and ‘beautiful’ middle-aged lady of Indo-European
origin, ‘a gift to the nation by a Kashmiri mother and a European father’; but
also of ‘questionable character’, having become estranged from her Indian
husband, a retired doctor who had served in the Indian Medical Service, a
government institution. She had visited militant Khilafatist and nationalist
figures in the city and wished to join the revolutionary movement. The leaders
she had met did not approve of her smoking habit and her manners and suspected
her of being a government spy. But they were still interested in utilising her
contacts among émigré Indians. Madam Dass, whose full name was never given, was
implied to be a political adventure-seeking femme fatale, painted in the
literary shades of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Mata Hari. She disappeared
from the dossier as suddenly as she had appeared. The discussions on her, like
so many other investigations, ceased abruptly and the investigation remained
Other suspected Bolshevik outsiders also
faded away. Bishop Fisher, an American Methodist Minister, was watched on the
basis of an article published by his rival in a New York journal. When he
realised he was being shadowed, the bishop complained and the watch was
withdrawn. Artem Arunoff, a ‘Bolshevik Armenian’, was interrogated in the Poona
Jail by the ‘Anti-Bolshevik’ officer; he claimed that three Bolshevik agents,
William Rainer, Haji Moor and Ivanoff, were in Calcutta. Subsequent enquiry
among the city’s small Armenian diaspora yielded little. Ivanoff reportedly
came to Calcutta, was watched and left. Harry S. Durkee, holder of US and
Russian passports, allegedly a Bolshevik agent with ‘somewhat Jewish features’,
arrived and departed through the Calcutta port. Preetz, a German textile
merchant who had apparently worked in pre-war Calcutta and acted as a Bolshevik
representative in Berlin, also became a subject of investigation. Nothing could
be found on his local contacts in Calcutta. A confidential report stated that
another man bearing the same name was a doctor attached to the Old Mission
Church and in the habit of visiting brothels to blackmail the patrons, and
liquor dens where he kept ‘low-class’ company. A report was also prepared on
the non-existence of an Esperanto Club in the city since they were tipped as
centres of Bolshevik internationalist intrigue in port-cities such as
Shanghai.  Tan Pei Yun, a Chinese actor
who played the role of a clown and stopped the dramatic performance early to
deliver a subversive anarchic-Bolshevik lecture, was expected to land in
Calcutta, with its large Chinese community. He was going to sow ‘mischief’,
having travelled through British-controlled Kuala Lumpur with his troupe. The
comedian’s arrival was never recorded. 
Finally, in January 1922, an unnamed ‘source’ from Moscow reported the
landing in Calcutta of four Russia-trained British Bolsheviks, Whitehead,
Keller, Karolinade and Markov. One of them was supposedly missing two fingers
on his hand. No-one matching such a description arrived. 
Potential Bolshevik penetration,
following central directives, was seen in the movements of people, money,
treasures and literature. The central authorities banned new rouble notes and
the local authorities kept an eye on their possible circulation even if none
was detected.  Lenin was personally
accused of planning to flood Bengal with forged paper currency and the
Bolsheviks were seen as successors of the Kaiser government in attempting to
increase inflation by ruining Britain and the empire with fraudulent
money.  Jewish jeweller shops in the
fashionable business districts of Dalhousie Square and Chowringhee were keenly
watched. Intelligence reports had arrived from London projecting Jews as
potential carriers of Russian crown jewels, confiscated and put on the market
by cash-strapped Bolsheviks. The Perry brothers, Joseph and Nathan, were
investigated. Joseph was found to have been insolvent for a while, but it was
ultimately decided that neither was a Bolshevik. Ele Levy Menashe, arriving by
a passenger ship from Rangoon, was also suspected, but instructions on him came
too late and his luggage had not been searched when he left again for
Bombay.  In 1920, left literature
originating from the Third International was scarcely noticed. Publications of
the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain were banned before they could
be circulated.  Pro-Bolshevik views,
expressed in the British labour organ,Daily
, were suppressed when the Government of India prohibited its import
during the high-tide of Non Cooperation and Khilafat Movements.  The entry of proscribed left literature
increased in volume in Calcutta from 1922 with the emergence of a local left
network to receive and distribute it.
In the gardens of deep reaction, myths
could take on lives of their own. The focus on the myth of the Bolshevik
outsider to explain the post-war sympathy among different class segments,
conceived and cultivated in the metropolitan surroundings of the Whitehall
Gardens and transplanted to imperial outposts such as Elysium Row in Calcutta,
operated in the dual realms of illusions and practical strategy. The illusion
of imperial policy-makers and the consequent recourse to xenophobic stereotypes
stemmed from a fixed belief in the perfection of an order that could not weaken
or crumble from within. Illusions regarding liberal cosmopolitanism and
multiple identities made the British state project Bolsheviks as both
narrow-minded and flexible, as parochial peasants and travelling subversives. This
also prompted the establishment to variously celebrate and downplay, in
unsystematic and contradictory ways, its own claims to sophisticated
cosmopolitanism and racist anti-cosmopolitanism.  The illusion was also aimed at winning over
the subjects of this order when many tried to resist capitalism at home and
imperialism and colonial capital abroad.The policy of the imperial authorities
in London to reduce administrative expenditure and the consequent slash in
secret service grants during 1919-20, was followed by similar moves in India.
At the end of 1921, with the conclusion of the Anglo-Russian Trade Agreement
and the reduction of the surveillance budget in India, the special
anti-Bolshevik scheme was abandoned. 
This meant that the official posts created at the central and local levels
were abolished. Through the special scheme, the colonial authorities and
intelligence services were made alert to the possibilities of a left formation
in the future. When a tiny communist nucleus emerged in the city in the course
of 1922, the state was already awaiting such a development.
British Cabinet Office Papers (CAB)
Home (Political) Reports, Government of
Reports of the Intelligence Branch of
Bengal Police.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.