Book Review: Left to the Wolves: Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror

By Barry McLoughlin

McLoughlin is an industrious researcher, who has put in a redoubtable amount of work in Irish, British, Russian, Ukrainian and other archives in order to bring these stories together. He got access to the prosecution records of these three unfortunates, and takes the reader through their imprisonment, interrogation and ultimate fate. Left to the Wolves is a very readable book – the author is an accomplished storyteller. Where the archival trail peters out, he fills in the gaps with memoirs left by fellow arrestees around the same time and place. This certainly makes for a good seamless narrative, although here and there it can blur the distinction between certifiable fact and assumption. Overall, though, this book is micro history at its best. McLoughlin knows his Irish, Soviet and communist history, and sets the tales of his unlucky heroes firmly in the wider context. The book provides a fascinating insight into a lost world of revolutionary internationalism, inspired by an imaginary vision of the USSR, and destroyed by the reality.

Price: £19:99
Publication Date: 2007
ISBN: 978-0716529156
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In many European countries, the Communist International (Comintern) largely succeeded in co-opting and then recasting local revolutionary traditions in the Bolshevik image. By the 1930s, thousands of communists from those countries had fled into political exile in the USSR, only to be caught up in the xenophobic paranoia of Stalin’s terror. In contrast, Irish revolutionary traditions, whether rooted in labour struggles or national struggles, proved more obstinate. Communist ideas and methods failed to supplant home-grown Irish forms of radicalism. Moreover, Ireland’s communists were never seriously repressed at home: they were far more likely to leave Ireland to seek work in Britain than to seek asylum in Russia. Consequently, from the point of view of Irish history, the three Irishmen whose tales Barry McLoughlin recounts in his book were oddities – individual, exceptional cases. But from the point of view of Soviet history, their lives in the USSR and tragic fates were all too representative of the experience of thousands of political exiles from around the world. What distinguished these three from other Irish people who passed safely through the USSR in the 1930s was the fact that, for one reason or another, they were unable to return to their homeland.

Patrick Breslin was the son of a Dublin shopkeeper. He had joined the Irish communist party in 1922, aged 15, and in 1928 had been sent for training in Moscow at the Comintern’s International Lenin School. In Moscow, he married a Soviet citizen with a sensitive job in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and opted to remain in the USSR with his wife and child, working as a translator. In spring 1936, under pressure from his wife and her employers, he renounced his Irish passport and took Soviet citizenship. Bryan Goold-Verschoyle, in contrast, was from an upper-middle-class Anglo-Irish background. He was radicalized by his university-educated older brothers, one of whom was living in Moscow, married to a recruiter for the Soviet secret services. Bryan had joined the British Communist Party (CPGB) in 1931, but after visiting his brother in Moscow, he became a ‘sleeper’ for Soviet intelligence. He abandoned open political activity and awaited instructions before being summoned to the USSR in 1936. Sean McAteer was a more classical Irish revolutionary from near Dundalk, who had been active both in labour struggles and in the armed national struggle in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1923, he was in Liverpool, involved with both the CPGB and the IRA. To raise money for the IRA, he took part in a bungled sub-post office raid, in the course of which he shot and fatally wounded the owner’s son. The CPGB headquarters and the Comintern’s International Red Aid helped the fugitive McAteer flee to Odessa, where he found work as an instructor in a club for visiting seamen. Goold-Verschoyle was both the youngest and the most naive of the three – when called to Moscow he took his lover Lotte Moos, a German political exile, with him without permission. In 1936, he was sent to Spain as a radio technician for Soviet intelligence. He corresponded with Moos in London, making remarks critical of Soviet policy. In April 1937, he was lured aboard a ship, imprisoned, and delivered to the USSR. McAteer and Breslin were simply arrested at home in Odessa and Moscow, victims of a state terror in which all foreigners were suspect. From the end of 1936 to his arrest in 1940, Breslin had been trying desperately to regain his Irish citizenship. Had he succeeded, he would probably have survived.