Umiskin press have published a timely account of Irish-Soviet relations in this the centennial year of the wholly unnecessary Russian Revolution. Quinn developed this book from a thesis that he had submitted to earn his PHD. Ultimately, relations between Ireland and the USSR were not especially close during the period in question so, despite some occasionally interesting dalliances, there was not a massive amount of material to work with. The writing is clunky, with no flow to it, and some of it is utterly superfluous, particularly the chapter on how Ireland first joined the original nine countries in the early version of the European Union. Nonetheless, the subject matter is beguiling enough to make the book relatively worthwhile.
The earliest link between the Irish and the Russian revolutionaries remains the most intriguing one. Quinn recounted the astonishing story of how Ludwig Martens, a member of the early Bolshevik government, gave his counterpart in the Irish government diamonds from the freshly deposed and deceased Czar Nicolas II, as collateral for a loan that the Irish government had given to the Bolsheviks, “(Martens) produced a cardboard box with a sixteen-carat diamond pendant and three sapphire and ruby brooches, saying that they formed part of the Russian Crown Jewels and were worth 25,500 dollars. The Czar’s possessions had been confiscated and were now deemed to be the state property of Soviet Russia”. Michael Collins had the sense to acknowledge that these were the product of a violent putsch and insisted that Ireland “take these back they are bloodstained”.
Lenin wrote about the Irish Rising before the Bolsheviks came to power so there was, if not a relationship, a certain kinship between two countries who were certainly anti-imperialist in nature although Ireland’s deep historical and geographical ties with the United States complicate this simplistic perspective. Perhaps, we are somewhere in the middle, just like our stated position of neutrality. In “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin legitimised violence as a necessity when taking control of a country, “do not deny in principle violence and terror in relation to the class enemy without which no revolution comes about”. Of course, Lenin had envisioned a global overthrowing of the capitalist system and Ireland rebelling against the UK fitted neatly into his worldview. However, Lenin misunderstood the Irish Rising. We revolted against the British to retake our own land, not because we disagreed with the economic system they employed. The Russian Revolution was an internal coup, so the question has to be asked: was it justified at all? I would say it was not. Lenin did not merely justify violence to take power, he also deemed it acceptable to hold onto power, an important distinction.
As Irish historians like Diarmaid Ferriter have pointed out, de Valera’s biggest achievement was ensuring that Ireland became a democratic country after the Rising. Thankfully, we never went down the communist route. It is an interesting thought experiment to ponder how many lives would have been saved had the Bolsheviks not seized power 100 years ago. Future left-leaning 1945 Irish Presidential candidate Doctor Patrick McCarten had some interesting thoughts on the early post-Revolutionary Russia after a visit there, “though it is claimed that the present government is a dictatorship of the proletariat it is nothing of the kind. It is a dictatorship of the communist party, which represents less than one percent of the population of Russia”. This is the key point about communism. If you balloon the size of the state to control virtually everything, logically you bequeath a dangerous and inordinate amount of power to the government. A dictatorship of the proletariat is a nice way of saying dictatorship. Ireland gave its power to her people, Russia had it stolen from them by the Bolsheviks. While he was the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Garret Fitzgerald recognised this and remarked in a 1976 meeting with his Soviet counterpart Gromyko, that the Soviet Union had a “contempt for the common working people”.
The Soviet Union initially opposed Irish entry to the United Nations ostensibly for not promptly establishing diplomatic relations. Quinn believed it may have been due to our neutrality during World War Two. This provoked a minor diplomatic rift between the two countries as de Valera attacked the Soviet Union’s supposed peace-loving credentials. Soviet foreign minister Vyshinsky observed, during his 1947 speech at the UN, that “it is impossible to recognise as peace loving such states as Ireland and Portugal which supported fascism”. It took until 1972 to found genuine and lasting Irish-Soviet relations in part due to serious issues that the borderline Catholic theocracy in the early Irish Free State had with the atheist Soviet Union. Any visits to the USSR were met with staunch political resistance in Ireland at the time.
You have to wonder how the Soviet government allowed their embassy in Ireland to be located on Orwell road! Quinn described how the seven-foot-high walls had to overcome objections from neighbours as it settled into the area and diplomatic relations between the two countries expanded. Simultaneously in the USSR, Irish ambassador Brennan took eight months to find a suitable place to set up the Irish embassy after he had turned down multiple options which Ireland had deemed too shabby and inappropriate. There was a point in time where we agreed to not take up residence at all due to the low standards of the buildings on offer before the USSR relented and gave us a workable residence. Ambassador Brennan recorded any references to Ireland in the Soviet newspapers like Pravda. For example, the reaction after famous Irish communist Michael O’ Riordan visited in 1977 after he was awarded the Order of the October Revolution (the second highest award after the Order of Lenin) by Brezhnev.
When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1980 it strained Soviet relations around the world and Ireland was no exception. Reagan insisted that countries boycott the Moscow Olympics. Ireland condemned the Soviet aggression at the United Nations but the Irish government left the decision to attend up the Olympic Council who decided that we should participate, which we duly did.
The USSR remained staunch critics of the UK as tension in Northern Ireland escalated in the 1970s. At the United Nations, Soviet diplomat Zakharov remarked that the UK had a duty to ensure the safety of Catholics while the United States had simultaneously deemed the matter an internal one in the UK. Quinn highlighted how the USSR exploited the situation to highlight that Western democracies could be equally as violent and brutal as communist countries.
There were numerous chapters that explored official and unofficial cultural relations between the two countries. Quinn wrote how big Jim “James” Larkin “remained a lifelong champion of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s leadership”. This would be the Larkin still revered by many on the Irish left. It was not just Larkin who legitimised the brutality of the Soviet Union. Sean O’Casey remarked in 1950 that “I clapped hands in 1917 for the Revolution and I clap hands now for the USSR “. Given that he knew the full extent of Stalin’s brutality at that stage, this was a shocking comment. Thankfully, there were more sensible Irish leftists, such as our current President Michael D. Higgins, who in 1983 welcomed a group from the Soviet Union to Dáil Éireann and pontificated that “if we only could, in a civilised world, try to reconcile the genuine meaning of critical freedom and true equality”. Higgins knew about the repression meted out to artists such as Shostakovich, who had visited Ireland the year before his death in 1972 in a move that eased diplomatic relations at the time. It remains to be seen whether Joe Dolan had the opposite effect in the USSR during a tour of the country in 1978.
Despite the dullness of the words on the pages, Quinn has written a book about a unique area of interest, especially so in 2017. It made me think if only all revolutions had ended with the countries becoming peaceful, democratic and neutral like Ireland, what kind of world would we have?