From An Historian’s Notebook: Comrade Chatto

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Comrade Chatto

Column recap:

[Iron Rules of History] [Russian Lullaby] [The Uses of Exile] [Putin & Bengali Cold War ] [Imperialism in One Country?] [Scratches on the Record] [The Progressive Bookseller] [The 18th Brumaire of Isaac Asimov] [Identity and Vegetables] [Straw Men] [Joys of Parochial Self-effacement][How To Be A Person With A Voice] [Will The Woke People Please Get Out Of My Hair] [The Emperor Vanishes] [How to Write a Folk Song] [Types of Plagiarism] [Shibbolethics] [The Story of a Fascist Missionary]

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the question of access to its archives was uppermost in the minds of many historians, some of whom had spent the better part of a century watching developments in that major centre of world power, and who now wanted a firm basis for a number of their speculations – even if the speculations they were concerned with had been those of their colleagues, not of them in person. The first in were the Americans, of course, who were willing to spend hard currency to cart great chunks of Soviet archives back to their country, whence, in the years to come, various I-told-you-so histories of the Cold War would start to appear, written by historians with little interest in what happened next but were intent on settling old scores, in particular with the Western Bloc’s own left-wing scholars. Publishers became adept at getting old Cold Warriors to write about their old theories in the light of ‘new’ Soviet archival evidence looted from the new Russian Federation’s archives. After a while, archivists and their agents also became more adept at handling requests and money from the West, and were more likely to sell copies of papers rather than the papers themselves, and the period of Wild Eastern cowboy raids on history came to a lingering end. The Cold Warriors continued to write their triumphalist histories, with titles that were variations on We Now Know (an actual title of an actual book, not a parody by a stand-up comedian). As an historian who was writing a PhD during these interesting times, I saw the tail end of this trend shortly afterwards, at about the time I was being sought out by publisher’s representatives seeking products to sell. One prominent American university press approached me for a manuscript; to my somewhat surprised query as to why they were interested in me when they were mostly publishing old Cold Warriors’ insistent reiterations that they had been right about the Evil Empire all along, the representative cut me short: ‘yes’, she said, ‘but they’ll be dead soon’.

Death could indeed have been more of a subject of these new histories, in particular the deaths of communists in the period of the Stalinist purges. As various delegations to the new Russian Federation’s archives were to discover, not all Soviet secrets were ready to be revealed to a public in quite the same way: there were still some secret archives and inaccessible corners. But the archives were ready to reveal some of their secrets.

Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta Coonference, 1945

One of the questions that appears to have obsessed those who were following the new developments in India, one of the countries that sent a delegation to Russia to survey the new materials, and particularly those from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, was the fate of the attempted Indian Führer, ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose. This was strange indeed, because the man concerned had died in a plane crash in 1945; but (and this is a whole saga of its own) there had long been a rumour that he’d escaped, that he’d lived to fight another day, and would return when the country needed him most. But the indigenous King Arthur’s failure to reappear in what they thought was his country’s hour of need was somewhat inexplicable to his supporters; and one of the conspiracy theories that emerged was that he had managed to escape to Stalin’s Soviet Union, but had found himself out of favour and had been sent to a Gulag in Siberia. The ‘evidence’ for this was the fact that when Bose had escaped from India in 1941 via Afghanistan to get to Germany, he’d tried to get to the Soviet Union first: The USSR of course had signed a non-aggression with Nazi Germany in 1938, and at the time of Subhas’s great escape was not yet at war with Germany.

The idea that a fascist collaborator would have sought out a life in the Soviet Union in 1945 might have seemed a little far-fetched to many, but not to his (mostly) Bengali supporters; they were convinced that the once and future Führer had failed to reappear in India because he’d been held back in Siberia, and had perhaps died there. Now they demanded to know whether they were right. The delegates from India reported that they had found no such evidence; and they tried to interest the gathering at the press conference in honour of their return from Russia in another story, that of a man who had indeed died in Stalin’s purges: one Virendranath Chattopadhyay.

Subhas Chandra Bose in Germany

Comrade Chatto, as he came to be known, was an important member of the German Communist Party, the KPD, a close friend and confidante of Willi Münzenberg, the ‘red millionaire’ who was integral to so many activities of the KPD and the Communist International in Europe. He had been the secretary of Rote Hilfe, the legal aid organisation that offered assistance to those in trouble with the state or with right-wing organisations; was the co-organiser of the Brussels Congress of Oppressed Peoples in 1927 that established the League Against Imperialism; and was invariably the contact in Berlin for persons passing through on the way to the Soviet Union, until his departure from Berlin himself to the Soviet Union in 1931.

Virendranath Chattopadhyay was the son of Aghorenath Chattopadhyay of Hyderabad, India; his siblings in a large family included the poet Sarojini Naidu and the playwright and poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay. As a student in London, he had become involved with the India House group of the Indian agitator Shyamji Krishna Varma, a circle that included the itinerant linguist Har Dayal, later a key figure in the Ghadar movement that sought to liberate India with the help of its diaspora, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the central ideologue of Hindutva fundamentalism. The India House group’s major success at the time was to persuade another Indian student in England, Madanlal Dhingra, to assassinate the British Indian official Curzon Wylie, who was a friend of Dhingra’s father’s, and would therefore trust the would-be assassin enough to allow him to get close enough to have a good chance of killing him; this, indeed, was the way the plan worked.

Shyamji Krishna Varma

At the outbreak of the First World War, Chatto was in Germany, where he offered assistance to the Kaiserreich in their bid to subvert the British Empire, with the help of an elaborate plan of a fifth column of Indians returning home from their overseas domains (the Ghadar movement) and a fomenting of uprisings partly created by Turkish-German collaboration in sending back to India British Indian prisoners of war who had agreed to desert their King, under the banner of a religious mutiny, which a Dutch Orientalist described rather well when he ironically referred to it as ‘jihad made in Germany’. By 1917, when it was clear that Germany and the Central Powers were losing the war, Chatto and a few others from what had been the wartime alliance of Indians in Berlin found themselves in Stockholm under the patronage of its socialist mayor, Carl Lindhagen; when Lenin’s train made its way from Zürich across Europe in March 1917 and stopped in Stockholm, Chatto and Bhupendranath Datta, the younger brother of the first internationally successful Indian godman, Swami Vivekananda, met him for discussions on what was to be done about the right to self-determination in the colonies – a discussion Indians and Egyptians in particular had been trying to initiate in Europe during the Great War. At Brest-Litovsk, in the peace treaty that ended the Great War on the Eastern Front, the Bolsheviks offered peace on a no-annexations-no-indemnities basis, and called for the right of nations to self-determination; Woodrow Wilson, after that, could offer no less, at least publicly.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Chatto was in Germany, where he offered assistance to the Kaiserreich in their bid to subvert the British Empire, with the help of an elaborate plan of a fifth column of Indians returning home from their overseas domains (the Ghadar movement) and a fomenting of uprisings partly created by Turkish-German collaboration in sending back to India British Indian prisoners of war who had agreed to desert their King, under the banner of a religious mutiny, which a Dutch Orientalist described rather well when he ironically referred to it as ‘jihad made in Germany’.

Jawaharlal Nehru met Chatto in Berlin in 1926, and their communication and correspondence formed a crucial part of the collective conscience of the anti-imperialist left’s connections in the 1920s. Nehru’s connection with Chatto’s then partner, the American communist Agnes Smedley, who was later in China and was a friend of the chronicler of the Chinese Revolution, Edgar Snow, was later to create quasi-diplomatic links between a not-yet-independent India, via its movement for national liberation, and the communist movement in China. The most tangible outcome of these links was the Indian medical mission sent into the Chinese 8th Route Army, commanded by General Zhu De, during the period of the anti-Japanese guerrilla war from 1937. It was something of an ironic footnote to later historical developments that the man who was then President of the Indian National Congress in 1938, and who therefore officially made the decision to send the medical mission to China, was Subhas Chandra Bose, future collaborator with Japanese imperialism, and the nominal leader of the government that took charge of the Andaman Islands, raised a flag of ‘free’ India there, and supervised the working of many of the islanders to death in the service of Japan.

Chatto, in the Soviet Union, started on odd jobs and theoretical publications in the service of the Comintern in Moscow. Then he moved on to work as an academic in Leningrad, reinventing himself as a linguist, philologist, and anthropologist, in which capacity he did substantial research on Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, and on Lewis Henry Morgan, whose writings were central to Engels’ theorisations. He also supervised the PhD thesis of one of Franz Boas’ former students. Shortly after his marriage to Lidia Karunovskaya, his fellow academic at the Oriental Studies Institute in Leningrad, he was arrested, for reasons still obscure: perhaps he had been too close to Sergey Mironovich Kirov, whom Stalin had had killed a couple of years earlier; Chatto was executed on 2 September 1937. Karunovskaya maintained the hope that he might still be alive; and after Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation speech in 1956, she resumed her search: could she, she wrote in a letter to the Soviet leader, be allowed to see her husband if he were alive, and could she be allowed to visit his grave if he were dead? In reply, she received a letter: Virendranat Agornatovich Chatopadyay had been posthumously exonerated of all charges against him.

Images courtesy: Picryl, Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Thespace.ink or its editorial team members.

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Tags

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

SUBSCRIBE TO NEWSLETTER

Submit Your Content

Member Login