In the second of our series based on Dr Ben Phillips’s curation of our new exhibition, he looks at the early TUC and labour delegations to Russia .
Above panel 7 from our new exhibition The Russian Revolution and its Impact on the Left in Britain, 1917 to 1926.
Several British labour delegations visited Russia and the Soviet Union during the period in question – one in 1917, another in 1920, a third in 1925 and finally the Women’s Delegation of 1925. Their composition and objectives varied considerably, reflecting the labour politics of their time – for instance, the 1917 delegation met with the Provisional Government and urged support for the continuation of the First World War, whereas the 1920 delegation, against the backdrop of Hands Off Russia, was staunchly anti-interventionist. Overall, the 1924 delegation is the best documented – something we owe to the personal papers of Fred Bramley, then the TUC’s General Secretary and a key participant in the delegation. All these photos you see here are from Bramley’s papers, which are held by the TUC Library. They provide us with an extraordinarily vivid – if undoubtedly partial and highly sanitised – insight into life in the early Soviet Union as seen through the eyes of foreign visitors.
The Bramley papers are, of course, personal artefacts. In my opinion, some of the most interesting and touching documents featured in this exhibition are those attesting to the interpersonal friendships and relationships interwoven through the broader solidarities and alliances on display. For various reasons, I particularly like these three below.
The above letter is from the director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow to the TUC, written in 1924, requesting help locating the minutes of the First International in the archives of the Bishopsgate Institute.
The letter above is a declaration of fraternal greetings to the 1924 TUC delegation from trade unionists in Soviet Central Asia, in which they promise to bestow unspecified ‘robes of honour’ on the British visitors.
The one below is probably my favourite. The woman in the photograph is Anzhelika Balabanova, then a Bolshevik and secretary of the Comintern. The photo was addressed to Margaret Bondfield, founder of the Women’s Labour League and subsequently a cabinet minister under Ramsay MacDonald. The two had first met in Switzerland in 1915 at a conference organised by the Women’s International of Socialist & Labour Organisations. When Bondfield took part in the TUC’s 1920 delegation visit to Petrograd and Moscow, they met again. The caption reads:
‘To dear comrade Margaret Bondfield. Bern 1915 – Moscow 1920. Remember how sad things looked then, and how bright and hopeful they are now in our free proletarian Russia, cradle of universal socialism.’
This optimism didn’t last. Despite having supported the Bolshevik government in 1920, Bondfield later became an anti-communist, while Balabanova emigrated to Italy only two years after this, having fallen out of favour with the Soviet authorities.