Arthur Ransome, the son of Cyril Ransome and Edith Boulton, was born in Leeds on 18th January, 1884. Educated at Rugby, Ransome was a reluctant student. He studied science at Yorkshire College (later to become Leeds University) but left before taking his degree.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Ransom was recruited by the Daily News to report on the Eastern Front. Later he was also employed by J. L. Garvin, to write for the Observer. During this period he worked closely with Hamilton Fyfe, a journalist employed by the Daily Mail.
After the Russian Revolution, Ransome remained in the country and became friendly with Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Karl Radek and other Bolshevik leaders. According to recently released documents, in August 1918 Ransome was recruited by MI6 to spy on the Russian government. He was given the code name S76.
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). In 1924 Ransom married Trotsky's secretary, Evgenia Shelepina. When they left the Soviet Union Shelepina smuggled out two million roubles in diamonds and pearls to help fund Bolshevik propoganda abroad.
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.
It was March 1916 before I was given my first limited permission to visit the Russian front as a war correspondent. We went to Kiev and thence to the South Western Army Headquarters at Berditchev, where we met for the first time General Brusilov, the smartest-uniformed and most elegant of all Russian generals, later to be famous for his break-through in the west, and for the disasters his armies suffered in retreat.
I remember interminable driving in vehicles of all kinds along roads that war had widened from narrow cart-tracks to broad highways half a mile wife. Drivers had moved out of the original road to ground on either side of it not yet churned to mud. As each new strip turned to a bog, the drivers steered just outside it, so that in many places two carts meeting each other going in opposite directions would be out of shouting distance.
I saw 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 in his anxiety to fight was no greater than the Russian's, 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.
In August I had flown along the front in one of the old two-seated Voisin machines in which the passenger sat as if in an open canoe with a foot on each side of the pilot, in whose stupidity he had the utmost confidence. It was cold in the air and I well remember beating my hand against the outside of the canoe to get my fingers warm enough to take a photograph.
Our real trouble, such as it was, began when just before dusk we flew black to the place from which we had started. We began to spiral down and instantly there appeared puff after puff of smoke from shells sent up to meet us. The pilot suddenly turned the nose of the machine up, pointing with a grin to a small new tear in one wing. Presently he spiralled down again and again was greeted with shells from below. Once more we sheered off, this time with curses, and on coming back yet again we were, at last, recognised as friends and allowed to land.
I dined that night with the battery that had done the shooting, and sat next to the officer in charge. I complained that I did not think he had given me a very hospitable reception. "Perhaps not," he replied. "I'm very sorry, but really you ought to count yourself lucky, for usually when we fire at our own machine we hit it." He explained that the aeroplanes had been given to the Russian army because they were not good enough for the French. They were very slow and therefore easy targets.
Our Military Attaché in Bucharest was Colonel Thomson, who blamed himself a good deal for his share in bringing Roumania into the war. "They told me at home that I could ask for anything I liked if I brought Roumania in," he said ruefully when disaster was looming near," but I think it would be a little tackless if I asked for anything now."
I liked him very much and was shocked one morning to hear someone say that one of last night's bombs had fallen on the Military Mission. I went round at once. The bomb had blown away half the bathroom, which was on the upper floor, but had left the bath itself in the open, projecting over the ruins. The water-supply was still working, so Thomson was having his bath as usual.
Later, when it was clear that nothing could prevent a general retreat, Thomson picked me up in his car, and I found my knees lifted to my chin. "Have a look," said Thomson and I lifted the carpet to see that the floor of the car was covered with bottles of champagne. Thomson laughed. "Well," he said, "if it has got to be a retreat, I don't see why it should be a dry one.
Years later, in London, I met Thomson hurrying towards the Strand in civilian clothes and carrying a delicately tinted pair of gloves. He told me he was on his way to address a Trade Union meeting. I suppose I must have smiled and he must have noticed my glance at his gloves. "Yes," he said, "I know I don't look much of a Trade Unionist, but that can't be helped." He became Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air in the first Labour Government, and to the sorrow of all who knew him was killed on the first flight of the airship R.101.
The Russian officers, brutal as they often were to their men (many of them scarcely considered privates to be human), were as a rule friendly and helpful to us. They showed us all we wanted to see. They always cheerfully provided for Arthur Ransome (a fellow journalist), who could not ride owing to some disablement, a cart to get about in.
Soon after I came back to Petrograd from the northern front, J. L. Garvin telegraphed asking me to become correspondent for the Observer. I was delighted and found things much easier. As correspondent for a Conservative newspaper I found doors wide open that would have been scarcely ajar for the correspondent of the Radical Daily News.
Before the end of August it was obvious that there would be a Bolshevik majority in the Soviets that would be reflected in the composition of the Executive Committee. During the 'July Days' the weakness of the Government had been manifest. Kerensky had been weakened by the double failure, military and diplomatic, disasters in Galicia and failure to bring the warring powers together in conference at Stockholm. Both these failures had brought new strength to the Bolsheviks, and a swing to the left was inevitable.
On February 19, 1918, the Soviet Government sent out a wireless message offering to renew negotiations with Germany. In an article in Pravda, Lenin disclosed his main line of argument (for signing a peace agreement with Germany). This was that the international war was the source of the revolution and that, since the international war would continue, it would continue to feed revolution, and that the Russians must at all costs preserve as much as they could of the Russian Revolution itself until such time as "the bourgeois power bled to death" and the Russian people were joined by revolting peoples in the West.
Unwin published Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 and sold enormous quantities of it at the lowest possible price. No one could read the plain statements of fact without feeling that the Russian war could not be justified, if only because the people in the book, from Lenin downwards, were quite obviously human beings and not the fantastic bogies that the Interventionists pretended. The little book makes no claim to knowledge of politics or economics, but it does give a clear picture of what Moscow was like in those days of starvation, high hope and unwanted war.
There are some stories that go against the cultural grain so deeply that we refuse to believe them. Arthur Ransome's "secret life" is apparently one of them. Last week the National Archives released papers proving that England's best-behaved children's author was a spy and possibly a double agent during the Russian revolution; that he wrote pro-Bolshevik articles for liberal newspapers and married Trotsky's private secretary. But why does this come as a surprise? Ransome's work for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian provoked whispered speculation in his own lifetime, and occasionally open controversy. Since 1991 a trickle of documents have leaked into the public realm confirming his work for MI6 and Lenin's high opinion of him as a source of intelligence. Yet each time this story is told it provokes as much astonishment and disbelief as the last.
It is not, perhaps, the fact that Ransome was a spy that we find so incredible. It is simply that the man who wrote Swallows and Amazons, who epitomised the plain talking and simple moral values that once made the empire great, could have been so complicated. In short it seems that we are doomed to think of Ransome according to the rigid stereotypes that informed his own novels. He is either a fat, rosy-cheeked Captain Flint: your best friend by the campfire, the firmest hand at the tiller; or he is "Black Jake", a pantomime pirate, creeping stealthily up the anchor chain or tossing his best friends to the sharks. It never appears to enter anybody's head to look further, to see a man whose life defied all such cliches, whether he was prepared to admit it to himself or not.
He was one of the first British journalists to interview Trotsky, and by 1917 was one of a select band of correspondents left in Russia reporting what was arguably the start of the greatest political upheaval ever witnessed.
A bohemian still, Ransome welcomed the February revolution and its October sequel. He wrote impassioned articles backing its principles and achievements: this was, for him, living democracy, a people's spontaneous rebellion against the cruelties of life under the tsar. And once the Bolsheviks had seized power, their determination and moral conviction convinced him that they were the only people to prevent Russia falling into anarchy – even when their ruthlessness became very plain.
Witnessing a masterful 1918 speech by Trotsky, awed by the eager faces of the crowd, Ransome wrote that he would "willingly give the rest of my life if it could be divided into minutes and given to men in England and France so that those of little faith who say the Russian revolution is discredited, should share for one minute that wonderful experience".