Arthur Ransome, the son of Cyril Ransome and Edith Boulton, was born at 6 Ash Grove, Headingley, Leeds on 18th January, 1884. His parents had held strong liberal views in their youth. Cyril wrote to Edith just before they got married: "I like you to be independent and think for yourself. I know among weak conventional people it is assumed that wives think just like their husbands and it is thought so nice and so pretty, while I think it is simply degrading to one and demoralizing to the other."
However, Cyril Ransome, who was professor of history at Yorkshire College (later to become Leeds University), was a committed conservative by the time Arthur was born. Arthur was introduced to radical beliefs by his neighbour, Isabella Ford, a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party and a pioneer of women's trade unions. It was at her home that Arthur met Prince Peter Kropotkin.
Arthur Ransome had a difficult relationship with his father. Roland Chambers, the author of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009) has pointed out: "Professor Ransome had tried to teach his eldest son to swim by throwing him over the side of a boat, and had the pleasure of watching him sink like a stone... Ransome acknowledged that his father was motivated only by the best of intentions, but revealed in one anecdote after another how his early development was impeded by an imagination so much less joyful and fertile than his own that rebellion was all but inevitable. Following the disastrous swimming lesson, he had taken himself, using his own pocket money, to the Leeds public baths, where he taught himself the backstroke in secret, only to be told when announcing the fact at breakfast that he was a liar. When the feat was eventually proved in situ, his father relented, but Ransome never truly forgave the accusation. He liked to remember the incident whenever any aspersion was cast on his honesty."
Ransome was educated by private tutors before being sent to the Old College at Windermere. He disliked boarding school and did not do well in his studies. When he was ten his father broke his ankle. Arthur explained in his autobiography: "For a long time he walked with crutches, the foot monstrously bandaged. The doctors were slow in finding what had happened, probably because my father was so sure himself. In the end they found that he had damaged a bone and that some form of tuberculosis had attacked the damaged place. His foot was cut off. Things grew no better and his leg was cut off at the knee. Even that was not enough and it was cut off at the thigh."
Cyril Ransome intended to stand as the Conservative Party candidate for Rugby but he died in 1897 just before Arthur was due to start at Rugby School: "I walked alone behind my father's coffin which, carried by six of his friends of unequal height, lurched horribly on its way. As the earth rattled on the lid of the coffin I stood horrified at myself, knowing that with my real sorrow, because I had liked and admired my father, was mixed a feeling of relief. This did not last. After the funeral more than one of my father's friends thought it well to remind me that I was now the head of the family with a heavy responsibility towards my mother and the younger ones. And my mother, feeling that she had to fill my father's place and determined to carry out his wishes now as when he was alive, told me (though I knew only too well already) of my father's fears for my character and her hopes that from now on I would remember to set a good example to my brothers and sisters." Ransome later wrote: "I have been learning ever since how much I lost in him. He had been disappointed in me, but I have often thought what friends we could have been had he not died so young."
Ransome friends at Rugby included Morgan Philips Price, Richard H. Tawney, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Harry Ricardo and Edward Taylor Scott, the son of C.P. Scott. Ransome continued to underachieve at school but did develop a good relationship with his English teacher, W. H. D. Rouse: "My greatest piece of good fortune in coming to Rugby was that... I came at once into the hands of a most remarkable man whom I might otherwise never have met. This was Dr W.H.D. Rouse... He saw nothing wrong in my determination some day to write books for myself, and to the dismay of my mother did everything he could to help me."
At the age of seventeen Ransome was offered a job with Grant Richards, a twenty-nine year old publisher. His first cousin, Laurence Binyon, a promising poet, gave him a good reference. Edith Ransome met Richards and agreed that her son should work for the young publisher: "She called on Mr Richards and was charmed by him. His offer was accepted, and within a year of leaving Rugby, I had become a London office boy with a salary of eight shillings a week."
According to Roland Chambers, his biographer, "Ransome handled every sort of menial task: wrapping books, fetching staff lunches from the local public houses, filling in labels, checking invoices and saving on postage by delivering parcels on foot. Before he had been in London more than a few weeks he knew every bookshop in and around Soho... Since Richards's business was overstretched and understaffed, he was soon given more responsible work: calling in sample bindings, ordering paper, learning the bibliographic language so essential to his trade. But Ransome was not content to remain at the manufacturing and distributive end of the industry. He wanted to be a writer." Ransome moved to the Unicorn Press and worked closely with the writers Edward Thomas, John Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie and Yone Noguchi. Another friend, Cecil Chesterton, was a convinced socialist and the two men attended meetings of the Fabian Society.
Ransome became friendly with William G. Collingwood, the author and artist and for many years a close associate of John Ruskin. Ransome spent time with two of Collingwood's daughters, Dora, Barbara and Ursula. On 3rd June 1904, Dora wrote in her diary: "Last Saturday Mr Ransome came to dinner. He is staying in the village and has been to dinner every day since. Today he has been on the water with us from 9 to 7 with an interval for lunch. This evening we stayed in the garden and he tried to make us see fairies."
Over the next few years Ransome "scratched a living" by writing stories and articles. His literary masters were William Morris, Thomas Carlyle and William Hazlitt. Morris and other Christian Socialists were especially important to him: "I read entranced of the lives of William Morris and his friends, of lives in which nothing seemed to matter except the making of lovely things and the making of a world to match them... From that moment I suppose, my fate was decided, and any chance I had ever had of a smooth career in academic or applied science was gone forever."
Ransome accepted several commissions from Henry J. Drane, the publisher of "Drane's ABC Handbooks". Priced at one shilling, Ransome contributed the ABC of Physical Culture. It included seven chapters "Exercises for General Health", "Muscular", "Breathing", "Smoking", "Food", "Drinking" and "Sleep". Other titles by Ransome included Highways and Byways in Fairyland, The Child's Book of the Seasons, Pond and Stream and Bohemia in London. Ransome was also commissioned to write a series of critical anthologies, The World Story Tellers, that would include his favourite authors.
Ransome hoped to marry Barbara Collingwood, but she turned him down. Next came her sister Dora, with equally painful results. Stephana Stevens also rejected him. According to Roland Chambers: "By 1908, virtually every woman of Ransome's acquaintance had either laughed or sighed as he protested his devotion. Some were gratifying flustered; others offered him tea. No serious offence was taken. But it was inevitable that at some point or another somebody would take him seriously, and when it happened, no one was more astonished than Ransome himself."
In early 1909 Ransome met Ivy Constance Walker in the flat rented by his friend, Ralph Courtney. Ransome later recalled: "She announced at once that she was not a barmaid, alluding, I suppose, to the impropriety of coming with young men to a young man's rooms... She had an extraordinary power of surrounding the simplest act with an air of conspiratorial secrecy and excitement." Ransome said he had fallen in love, "not happily, as with Barbara Collingwood, but in a horribly puzzled manner". Ivy told him that her mother was an unstable lunatic and her father was a sadist: "From all this fantastic horror I was to rescue her and I could see no other way before me." They married on 13th March 1909. A daughter, Tabitha, was born in 1910.
It was not a happy marriage and it did not help his writing career. Ransome wrote on 12th December, 1912: "This last year has been the worst of my life... I have not been able to work. I have allowed myself to keep my wife's times rather than my own. I have found it increasingly difficult to filch or force time for study of any kind. I have risen late, too late for a morning's work... In the evening, for fear of hearing my wife's complaint that I have been away from her all day and might at least spare her the evening, I have played cards (with her).... an ill conscience has made me ill-tempered and my wife unhappy. I have been unhappy almost always myself." Ransome's biographer, Roland Chambers, claimed his wife "shocked his Victorian sensibilities with her tantrums, her lewdness, and her longing for notoriety."
The publisher Martin Secker commissioned Ransome to write a book on Oscar Wilde. He was given considerable help by Wilde's literary executor, Robert Ross. He provided access not only to Wilde's literary estate, but also to his own private correspondence. Ross wanted Ransome's book to help rehabilitate Wilde's reputation. Ross also wanted to gain revenge on Lord Alfred Douglas, who he considered had destroyed Wilde. He did this by letting Ransome see the unabridged copy of De Profundis, the letter Wilde wrote to Douglas when he was in Reading Prison. Ransome became only the fourth person to read the letter where Wilde accused Douglas of vanity, treachery and cowardice.
The book, Wilde: A Critical Study, was published on 12th February 1912. The following month, on 9th March, Lord Douglas filed an action for libel against Ransome and Secker. Ransome's friends, Edward Thomas, John Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie and Cecil Chesterton gave him support and Robin Collingwood offered to pay his legal costs. Secker settled out of court and sold the copyright of the book to Methuen.
The case against Ransome began in the High Court on 17th April 1913. According to Roland Chambers, the author of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009): "Douglas had a strong case. Answering the charge that his client had ruined Wilde, the prosecution pointed out that Douglas was little more than a boy when Wilde first met him, whereas Wilde, almost twenty years his senior, had already written The Picture of Dorian Grey, a scandalous work sprung from a corner of life no proper gentleman ever visited, still less boasted of in print. If there had been any corruption, it had been Wilde's corruption of Douglas."
Douglas's counsel went on to argue that Wilde was "a shameless predator who had deprived an innocent boy not only of his inheritance, but of his chastity". Douglas admitted during cross-examination by J. H. Campbell (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland) that he had deserted Wilde before his original conviction and had not returned to England, let alone visited his friend in prison, in over two years. He also read out correspondence that indicated that Douglas had "consorted with male prostitutes" and had taken money from Wilde, not because he needed it but because it gave him an erotic thrill. Campbell read from a letter written by Douglas: "I remember the sweetness of asking Oscar for money. It was a sweet humiliation."
The case took a dramatic turn when the De Profundis letter was read out in court. It has been described as the "most devastating character assassination in the whole of literature". According to Wilde's letter, Douglas's insatiable appetite, vanity and ingratitude were responsible for every catastrophe. Wilde finished the letter with the words: "But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will power, and my will became utterly subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger nature. It was the case of that tyranny of the weak over the strong which somewhere in one of my plays I describe as being the only tyranny that lasts."
Douglas, who claimed never to have read the letter, found the contents so upsetting he left the witness box, only to be called back and reprimanded by the judge. After a three-day trial, the jury took just over two hours to return its verdict. Ransome was found not guilty of libel and the publicity the book received meant that it was now going to be a bestseller. In spite of the ruling in his favour, Ransome insisted that the offending passages be deleted from every future edition of the book.
The court case had been covered in great detail by all the national newspapers. Ransome was now in a position to exploit his new fame. He had offers from publishers to write other books of a controversial nature. He rejected these offers and instead accepted a commission to produce an English guide to St. Petersburg. This would provide the opportunity to leave his wife. He had a meeting with his solicitor, Sir George Lewis, and asked him to arrange a legal separation from his wife. During his time in Russia he learnt to speak the Russian language. The book was finished in July 1914 but never published.
Ransome met Harold Williams and his wife, Ariadna Tyrkova, in Russia in 1914. Ransome later commented: "He (Williams) opened doors for me that I might have been years in finding for myself... I owe him more than I can say." People he was introduced to included Sir George Buchanan, Bernard Pares, Paul Milyukov and Peter Struve. According to Roland Chambers, the author of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009): Williams had a major influence on Ransome: "A shy, generous man a few years older than himself, with a pedagogic streak and a disarming stutter. Ransome benefited from Williams's encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history, his journalistic contacts and also from a friendship with Williams's wife, Ariadna Tyrkova, the first female representative elected to the Russian parliament, or State Duma, and a passionate advocate of constitutional reform. In Williams's company Ransome discussed not only politics, but philosophy, history and literature, sought out his advice on every subject and listened in amazement as he spoke in any one of the forty-two different languages used in Russia at that time."
Ransome was still in Russia when the First World War started in August 1914. He wrote to a friend: "The streets are full of soldiers. And, well, I always admired the Russians, but never so much as now. You know how our soldiers go off in pomp with flags and music. I have not heard a note of music since the declaration of war. They go off quite silently here in the middle of the night, carrying their little tin kettles, and for all the world like puzzled children going off to school for the first time. And the idea in all their heads is fine. They all say the same thing. We hate fighting. But if we can stop Germany then there will be peace for ever."
Ransome now returned to London where he hoped to find a newspaper willing to employ him to report on the war. In an article published on 3rd September 1914 where he predicted that at the end of the war: "England will be more English, France more French, and in the East, Russia will be more Russian and less inclined to suppose that civilization as well as the best of everything is made in Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin."
In December 1914 Ransome returned to Petrograd. Hamilton Fyfe, a journalist employed by the Daily Mail tried unsuccessfully to persuade the newspaper to send Ransome to report the war in Poland. Another friend, Harold Williams, arranged for Ransome to work for the Daily News. His first report on the Eastern Front appeared in the newspaper on 2nd September 1915.
The British government had established the secret War Propaganda Bureau on the outbreak of the First World War. Based on an idea put forward by David Lloyd George, the plan was to promoting Britain's interests during the war. This involved recruiting Britain's leading writers to write pamphlets that supported the war effort. Writers recruited included Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells.
One of the first pamphlets to be published was Report on Alleged German Outrages, that appeared at the beginning of 1915. This pamphlet attempted to give credence to the idea that the German Army had systematically tortured Belgian civilians. The great Dutch illustrator, Louis Raemakers, was recruited to provide the highly emotionally drawings that appeared in the pamphlet.
Bernard Pares became aware of the activities of the secret War Propaganda Bureau and suggested to Robert Bruce Lockhart, the British consul-general that a similar organization should be set up in Russia to control reporting on the Eastern Front. Lockhart set up a meeting with British journalists, including Ransome, in January 1916. After talking to Harold Williams, Lockhart submitted a proposal to the British ambassador Sir George Buchanan. The project was approved and became known as the International News Agency (Anglo-Russian Bureau). Funded by the Foreign Office and headed by Hugh Walpole, it placed pro-British stories in Russian newspapers. As well as Ransome, Pares and Williams, other members included Hamilton Fyfe of the Daily News and Morgan Philips Price of the Manchester Guardian.
After visiting the Russian Army on the frontline Ransome reported: "Looking back now I seem to have seen nothing, but I did in fact see a great deal of that long-drawn-out front, and of the men who, ill-armed, ill-supplied, were holding it against an enemy who, even if his anxiety to fight was not greater than the Russians', was infinitely better equipped. I came back to Petrograd full of admiration for the Russian soldiers who were holding the front without enough weapons to go round. I was much better able to understand the grimness with which those of my friends who knew Russia best were looking into the future."
As Nicholas was supreme command of the Russian Army he was linked to the country's military failures and there was a strong decline support for the Tsar Nicholas II in Russia. On Friday 8th March, 1917, there was a massive demonstration against the Tsar. It was estimated that over 200,000 took part in the march. Ransome walked along with the crowd that were hemmed in by mounted Cossacks armed with whips and sabres. But no violent suppression was attempted. Ransome was struck, chiefly, by the good humour of these rioters, made up not simply of workers, but of men and women from every class. Ransome wrote: "Women and girls, mostly well-dressed, were enjoying the excitement. It was like a bank holiday, with thunder in the air." There were further demonstrations on Saturday and on Sunday soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators. According to Ransome: "Police agents opened fire on the soldiers, and shooting became general, though I believe the soldiers mostly used blank cartridges."
After the abdication of Tsar in March, 1917, George Lvov was asked to head the new Provisional Government in Russia. Ariadna Tyrkova commented: "Prince Lvov had always held aloof from a purely political life. He belonged to no party, and as head of the Government could rise above party issues. Not till later did the four months of his premiership demonstrate the consequences of such aloofness even from that very narrow sphere of political life which in Tsarist Russia was limited to work in the Duma and party activity. Neither a clear, definite, manly programme, nor the ability for firmly and persistently realising certain political problems were to be found in Prince G. Lvov. But these weak points of his character were generally unknown."
Ransome reported in the Daily News on 16th March 1917: "It is impossible for people who have not lived here to know with what joy we write of the new Russian Government. Only those who know how things were but a week ago can understand the enthusiasm of us who have seen the miracle take place before our eyes. We knew how Russia worked for war in spite of her Government. We could not tell the truth. It is as if honesty had returned. Today newspapers have reappeared, and their tone and even form are so joyful that it is hard to recognize them. They are so different from the censor-ridden mutes and unhappy things of a week ago. Every paper seems to be executing a war-dance of joy."
On May 1st, 1917, Ransome went on the streets of Petrograd to witness the first official holiday of the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II: "In all directions as far as I can see red flags are waving above the dense crowd, which leaves just room for the constantly passing processions. On either side of the processions, long strings of men and women walk along holding hands... the whole town is hung with flags, banners and inscriptions. A characteristic emblem, an enormous red and white banner, hangs over the granite front of the German embassy, which was sacked in 1914 and has stood empty ever since. The banner is inscribed, Proletariat of all lands unite. That is the thought in the minds of the Russian workmen today. When will such a day be seen in Berlin?"
Ransome also reported on the Kornilov Revolt: "Last night I saw the cavalry regiment just arrived from the front to support the Government riding from the station. Dnsty, sunburnt, with full equipment and gas masks swinging in cases at their sides distinguishing them from the troops at the rear, they moved through the streets on little grey horses. One man with his reins loose on his horse's neck played the accordion accompanied by another who beat time on a tambourine. They brought with them into the hot, damp July' evening in Petrograd something of the old vigour of the front; something of the vivid contrast there has always been between the front and the rear. I have never felt so strongly that Petrograd was a sick city as when I read the little dusty red flags fastened on their green lances. Here were the original watchwords of revolution: Long Live the Russian Republic, Forward in the Name of Freedom, Liberty or Death.
Lola Kinel met Ransome on a train during the summer of 1917. She later recalled in her autobiography, Under Five Eagles (1937) that "Ransome was an odd-looking man walking up and down the corridor and throwing occasional surreptitious glances in our direction. He was tall, dressed in a Russian military coat, though without insignia, and a fur cap. He had long red moustaches, completely concealing his mouth, and humorous, twinkling eyes." Ransome delighted her with his broken Russian and they spent the rest of the journey playing chess.
Kinel visited Ransome at his room in Glinka Street in Petrograd. "It was the first bachelor room I had ever seen; it had a desk and typewriter in one corner, in another a bed, night table, and dresser all behind a screen; then a sort of social arrangement, consisting of an old sofa and a round table with some chairs around it in the centre. And books. They were everywhere heaped on the sofa and even on the floor. Among these books I found occasionally torn socks. I used to pick them up gingerly in my gloved hand and wrap them in a piece of newspaper... His own Bohemianism was not a pose but seemed real. He had, I remember, a thorough contempt for men who dressed well, or the least conventionally. He forgave women if they were pretty, but he preferred most Russian women, who do not pose and are simple, to English girls. For England he seemed to have a queer mixture of contempt, dislike, and love. He was clever, yet childish, very sincere and kind and romantic, and on the whole far more interesting than his books."
George Alexander Hill, a British spy, met Ransome during this period and commented on him in his autobiography, Go Spy the Land (1933): "A tall, lanky, bony individual, with a shock of sandy hair, usually unkempt, and the eyes of a small inqquisitive and rather mischievous boy. He really was a lovable personality when you came to know him." In fact, he was in poor health at the time. He blamed the shortage of fruit and vegetables in his diet. He wrote to his mother: "I can't cross a room without nearly collapsing and the day before yesterday I fainted in the street."
Ransome was so ill that in October 1917 he left Russia. He was therefore in England when the Russian Revolution took place. Ransome wrote an article for the Daily News on 9th November. Ransome argued: "The lack of bloodshed during the Bolshevik coup d'état is due to two causes. First the comparative unanimity of the classes represented in the Soviet, and second to the fact that the large masses of the population increasingly despair of politics, and, though possibly disapproving, are willing to stand aside."
In a series of newspaper articles Ransome attempted to explain the Bolshevik government's attitude towards the First World War: "They do not want any peace which would leave Russia in the position of a sleeping partner of Germany. On the other hand, they are opposed to assisting what they regard as Imperialist war-aims on the part of ourselves. They will probably use their new position to press more insistently than their precursors for definition of Allied war-aims. If, however, we wish to force them into a more hostile attitude, and perhaps into a separate peace, we cannot do better than to follow the example of some of this morning's newspapers in loudly condemning what we do not understand."
Ransome argued that it was important to remember that Lenin and Bolsheviks had been successful because they had removed an unpopular government: "The most important thing to be remembered in estimating the present situation in Russia is that Bolshevism' is a tendency quite independent of the personality and doctrines of the Bolshevik leaders. When during the last few months in Petrograd we observed to each other that more and more people were turning Bolshevik, we meant not that they were embracing the principles of Socialism as expounded by Lenin, but simply that they were coming nearer to active and open hostility to the Government."
The British government disapproved of Ransome's article. John Pollock of The Morning Post had already told the government that he believed Ransome was a Bolshevik sympathizer and a strong opponent of David Lloyd George: "In the summer of 1917 I met him in Petrograd, where he was publicly abusing the British government, and in particular Mr Lloyd George, for setting up tyranny in England... In the Autumn of 1917 I heard that he was in close touch with the Bolshevik leaders." Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette (2013) has commented that he was a Bolshevik sympathizer: "There was some truth in this. Ransome sincerely hoped that the Bolshevik revolution would sweep away the many injustices of the old regime and offer a brighter future to the country's downtrodden poor."
On 3rd December, 1917, Ransome went to see Sir Robert Cecil, the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Ransome recorded in his diary: "He stood in front of the fireplace, immensely tall, fantastically thin, his hawk-like head swinging forward at the end of a long arc formed by his body and legs. 'If you find, as you well may, that things have collapsed into chaos, what do you propose to do?' I told him that I should make no plans until I could see for myself what was happening, and that from London I could make no guess in all that fog of rumour where to look for the main thread of Russian history. He gave me his blessing, and made things easy for me, at least as far as Stockholm, by entrusting the diplomatic bag to me to deliver to the Legation there."
Ransome was friends with Zelda Kahan, a member of the the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Her brother-in-law, Theodore Rothstein, was a close friend of Lenin and wrote a letter of introduction for Ransome that he could show the Bolshevik government. It included the following passage: "Mr Ransome is the only correspondent who has informed the English public of events in Russia honestly."
Armed with this letter he traveled to Stockholm and met Vatslav Vorovsky, the head of the Bolshevik legation. His interview with Vorovsky appeared in the Daily News on 19th December, 1917. Vorovsky reminded Ransome: "You have lived in Russia long enough to know that Russia is not a condition to carry on a war. Russia must make peace. It is for the Allies to choose whether that peace is to be a separate or a general peace." Vorovsky pointed out that the Bolshevik government's quarrel was not with the English working class, but only with the British government, which clung so obstinately to the destruction of Germany.
Ransome described Vorovsky as being "well-educated, amiable and cosmopolitan". He warned that "continual sabotage on the part of the bourgeoisie may exasperate the mass of the people to such an extent as to carry them beyond the control of their leaders." He then handed Ransome his visa and he was able to move on to Russia. Ransome arrived in Petrograd on 25th December, 1917.
Ransome first met Evgenia Shelepina when he interviewed Leon Trotsky on 28th December 1917. Shelepina was Trotsky's secretary. Ransome fell in love with Shelepina and the two became lovers. Ransome's biographer, Roland Chambers, has pointed out: "Over forty years later, Ransome remembered the decisive moment at which he realized he was in love: a mixture of terror and relief over which he had no power whatsoever. But as he snatched his future wife from beneath the wheels of history - the war, the Revolution, the fatal passage of circumstance which Lenin had declared indifferent to the fate of any single individual - the possibility of separating his private from his professional affairs remained as remote as ever."
Ransome's article on Leon Trotsky appeared in the Daily News on 31st December, 1917. "In an anteroom one of Mr Trotsky's secretaries, a young officer, told me Mr Trotsky was expecting me. Going into an inner room, unfurnished except for a writing table, two chairs and a telephone, I found the man who, in the name of the Proletariat, is practically the dictator of all Russia. He has a striking head, a very broad, high forehead above lively eyes, a fine cut nose and a small cavalier beard. Though I had heard him speak before, this was the first time I had seen him face to face. I got an impression of extreme efficiency and definite purpose. In spite of all that is said against him by his enemies, I do not think that he is a man to do anything except from a conviction that it is the best thing to be done for the revolutionary cause that is in his heart. He showed considerable knowledge of English politics."
The article quoted Trotsky as saying: "Russia is strong in that her Revolution was the starting point of a peace movement in Europe. A year ago it seemed that only militarism could end the war. It is now clear that the war will be decided by social rather than political pressure. It is to the Russian Revolution that German democracy looks, and it is the recognition of that fact that compels the German Government to accept the Russian principles as a basis for negotiation."
Ransome asked Trotsky if he considered Germany's peace offer as a joint victory of the Russian and German democracies. He replied, "Not of Russian and German democracy alone, but of the democratic movement generally. The movement is visible everywhere. Austria and Hungary are on the point of revolt, and not they alone. Every Government in Europe is feeling the pressure of democracy from below. The German attitude merely means that the German Government is wiser than most, and more realistic. It recognizes the real factors and is moved by them. The Germans have been forced by democratic pressure to throw aside their grandiose plans of conquest and to accept a peace in which there is neither conqueror nor conquered."
The article was read by the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour. He immediately telegramed the British Embassy in Petrograd and asked if Ransome could be recruited to provide his services as an unofficial agent, communicating British views to the Soviet and vive versa. Ransome agreed and reported directly to the British Ambassador, George Buchanan or Major Cudbert Thornhill of British intelligence.
Ransome's new girlfriend, Evgenia Shelepina, was a major source of secret information. Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013) commented that: "Their relationship was to transform the information he received from the regime: it was Shelepina who typed up Trotsky's correspondence and planned all his meetings. Suddenly, Ransome found himself with access to highly secretive documents and telegraphic transmissions."
Colonel Alfred Knox, the British Military Attaché at the embassy, had no idea that Ransome was a spy. He was appalled by what he considered to be Ransome's pro-Bolshevik articles that were appearing in the Daily News and the New York Times. He suggested that Ransome should be "shot like a dog". Roland Chambers, the author of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009) argued: "Ransome's articles reflected the party line so accurately that there was little to choose between them but style, while as his relationship with Evgenia deepened, so any change of heart or sudden epiphany became that much more improbable. In his autobiography, she is pictured either as a distant functionary, handing out official releases, or as guardian of his personal happiness; never both at the same time. They had grown together gradually, as ordinary people do, strolling in the evenings, taking supper at the rooms she shared with her sister at the commissariat's headquarters in the centre of town."
Ransome developed a very intense relationship with Evgenia Shelepina and told her that as soon as he could arrange a divorce from Ivy Constance Ransome he would marry her. In his autobiography he recalled, that she had slipped when boarding a tram, and clutching the rail, was dragged full length along the track, so that if her grip had failed she would have been cut in two. "Those few horrible seconds during which she lay almost under the advancing wheel possibly determined both of our lives. But it was not until afterwards that we admitted anything of the kind to one another."
George Alexander Hill, a British diplomat in Petrograd, got to know Shelepina during this period. "She must have been two or three inches above six feet in her stockings... At first glance, one was apt to dismiss her as a very fine-looking specimen of Russian peasant womanhood, but closer acquaintance revealed in her depths of unguessed qualities.... She was methodical and intellectual, a hard worker with an enormous sense of humour. She saw things quickly and could analyse political situations with the speed and precision with which an experienced bridge player analyses a hand of cards... I do not believe she ever turned away from Trotsky anyone who was of the slightest consequence, and yet it was no easy matter to get past that maiden unless one had that something."
Ransome also developed a close relationship with Karl Radek, who was the Bolshevik chief of Western propaganda. Ransome argued in his autobiography: "Radek had been born in Poland and spoke Polish (badly as his wife used to say, because he had talked too much German in exile), Russian (with a remarkably Polish accent) and French with the greatest difficulty. He always talked Russian with me but loved to drag in sentences from English books, which I sometimes annoyed him by being slow to recognize.... He had an extraordinary memory and an astonishingly detailed knowledge of English politics."
On 2nd September, as Lenin's life hung in the balance, Ransome wrote an obituary hailing the founder of Bolshevism as "the greatest figure of the Russian Revolution". Here "for good or evil was a man who, at least for a moment, had his hand on the rudder of the world". Common peasants who had known Lenin attested to his goodness, his extraordinary generosity to children. The workers looked up to him, "not as an ordinary man, but as a saint". Without Lenin, Ransome concluded, the soviets would not perish, but they would lose their vital direction.
His influence was the one constant steadying factor. He had his definite policy, and his firmness in his own position was the best curb on other, more mercurial people. In the truest sense of the word it may be said that the revolution has lost its head. Fiery Trotsky, ingenious, brilliant Radek, are alike unable to replace the cool logic of the most colossal dreamer that Russia produced in our time.
Ransome's position became more difficult when it became clear that Winston Churchill, Britain's Minister of War, wanted to support the White Army in the Russian Civil War. On 27th August, 1919, British Airco DH.9 bombers dropped chemical weapons on the Russian village of Emtsa. According to one source: "Bolsheviks soldiers fled as the green gas spread. Those who could not escape, vomited blood before losing consciousness."
Ransome contacted his spymaster, Robert Bruce Lockhart, to help him and Evgenia, to escape from Russia to Estonia by providing the necessary papers. Lockhart agreed and sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in London asking for help. "A very useful lady, who has worked here in an extremely confidential position in a government office desires to give up her present position... She has been of the greatest service to me and is anxious to establish herself in Stockholm where she would be at the centre of information regarding underground agitation in Russia... In order to enable her to leave secretly, I wish to have authority to put her to Mr Ransome's passport as his wife and facilitate her departure via Murmansk." Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, arranged for the papers to be sent to Russia.
Ransome's newspaper reports provided a sympathetic view of the revolution and when he arrived back in England in 1919 he was arrested by the police under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. After being interviewed by Sir Basil Thomson, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Ransome was released after he convinced the authorities that he was not a communist revolutionary.
While in England he wrote Six Weeks in Russia (1919), an account of the revolution and an explanation for the signing of the Brest-Litovsk. Upset by what he had written, the Foreign Office refused him permission to leave the country. Eventually, with the help of C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, and MI6 he got his passport back and returned to Russia.
For the next five years Ransom reported on Russia for both the Manchester Guardian and the Observer and also wrote the book, The Crisis in Russia (1921). On 8th May 1924 Ransom married Evgenia Shelepina, having finally secured a divorce from Ivy Walker Ransome.
Adam Mars Jones has argued: "Ransome knew which side his bread was buttered on, though he may not have realised how busily it was being buttered on both sides, by British and Bolshevik agencies alike. He was nothing as complicated as a double agent, but was useful to each side only if he had some standing with the other." Sir Cavendish-Bentinck reported to the Foreign Office: "He (Ransome) is really rather a coward and is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds."
In 1929 Ransom began writing novels for children. Although not immediately successful, his books eventually became best-sellers. The twelve books include Swallows and Amazons (1930), Swallowdale (1931), Peter Duck (1932), Winter Holiday (1933), Coot Club (1934) and Pigeon Post (1936). According to Jon Henley the "children's books had sold more than a million copies by the time the last was published, and have sold many millions more since."
The historian, Roland Chambers has argued that Ransome was well-rewarded for his spying activities: "He (Chambers) asks hard questions about the sources of the money spent on building and equipping Racundra - the sturdy Baltic ketch on which Ransome began his symbolic voyage away from red politics and back to the blue blazers of the Royal Cruising Club. When the yacht was sold, the proceeds furnished half the sum necessary to buy Low Ludderburn, the Lake District farmhouse in which Ransome's best-known novel, Swallows and Amazons, was written. Had this money been earned from the INO, an intelligence-gathering branch of Felix Dzerzhinsky's sinister Cheka? Ernest Boyce, MI6's head of station in Russia, sailed on Racundra with Ransome. Was Ransome a double agent - and if so, what did this mean?"
Arthur Ransome died on 3rd June 1967. The Autobiography of Arthur Ransom, edited by Rupert Hart-Davies, was published in 1976.