Red Scare: Surbiton and Fears of Bolshevism

One hundred years ago this October (depending upon which version of the calendar one uses) the Bolshevik party under Lenin achieved a dramatic seizure of power in Russia, a coup d’etat which sent a chill of fear across much of Europe, including in Britain.

In the immediate years following 1917, numerous anti-Bolshevik meetings were held across the country (including in the south-west London area), where Russian refugees or other speakers gave gloomy accounts of what had happened in the former Czarist Empire, and offered dire warnings about what could befall Britain and its Empire if people did not ‘wake up’ to the growing Communist menace, and to the possibility of a Russian-style revolution occurring here.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

A typical example of this occurred in Surbiton in February, 1920, and careful exploration of local newspaper coverage can help piece the full details together. Held under the auspices of the new ‘Middle Classes Union’ (MCU), an organisation founded in 1919 to protect the middle classes from Socialism, strikes and general working-class agitation, a lecture on ‘The Bolshevik Terror’ was given in the large hall of the Surbiton Assembly Rooms (see recent photo) by Mr. George Curnock, who was described in the local press as a ‘well-known London journalist’.

Presided over by Mr. George Curnock, a ‘large and deeply interested audience’ listened to Curnock for an hour and a half while he described the ‘men and forces’ which, he claimed, were trying to bring Bolshevism to England, and also dealt with various aspects of life in Russia under the new Soviet regime. In what was called a series of ‘vivid pictures’, the lecturer showed to the audience the ‘type of men’ who advocated Bolshevism in Russia and the methods they had adopted to deal ‘with those who do not agree with them’.

Curnock also dwelt upon what he alleged was the strong relationship between the Bolshevists in Russia and their ‘admirers and would-be imitators’ in Britain. The revolutionary Socialism of today, he argued, was the Communism of Karl Marx, who had taught the working-man to look upon his employer as an ‘active enemy’ instead of a friend. Moreover, in Curnock’s estimation, all Communists were confirmed students of Karl Marx, whether they were found in Russia as Bolshevists, or in England ‘as alleged leaders of British labour’.

lenin

London, said Curnock, had in recent years shielded several men, including Peter the Painter, one of the Sydney Street anarchists from a well-known siege in 1911, and other men who had since gone on to directly join Lenin and Trotsky in Russia. Revolution, Curnock told his Surbiton Assembly Room audience,  had not yet been stirred up in England, ‘but it behoved all who loved their country to be prepared to defend it against the vile forces of revolution and anarchy’, forces which, ‘in the the name of Bolshevism or Communism or in some other guise’, would – if they were not watchful – ‘throw Britain into the abyss in which Russia was already sinking…’.

Princess Bariatinsky

A few months later, the local Middle Classes Union organised another anti-Bolshevik event in the form of an open air fete, held at Raven’s Ait on the River Thames (‘by kind permission of Kingston Rowing Club’), which is just a ten-minute walk away from the Assembly Rooms. Guest of honour at the event was Princess Bariatinsky (1871-1921), an aristocratic refugee from Russia.

Bariatinsky (see photo) had been a famous theatre actress and socialite in Czarist Russia, who had taken the stage-name of Lydia Yavorska, and eventually became a staunch critic of the Bolsheviks and their revolution. The new Communist regime had issued an arrest warrant for her, but the Princess had made a daring escape from Russia before they could detain her.

After music from a band heralded her arrival at the Raiven’s Ait event, and she was introduced to local members of the MCU, the Princess spoke of her experiences in Soviet Russia. She read a letter which she said she had just received from her brother, which had informed her of his wife’s death of typhus in a Russian prison. The condition of the people in Russia, the Princess said, ‘under Lenin’s savage and inhuman rule was simply appalling’, it being the ‘most merciless tyranny ever recorded in history’, a situation which she had personally escaped from. An account of her escape, she said, was about to appear in a journal.

Local members of the MCU continued to highlight their concerns about Socialism and Bolshevism for the rest of 1920, often seeking to link the new Labour Party in Surbiton and Kingston with the ‘Red Peril’ posed by Bolshevik Russia and its agents. In October, 1920, Mr. A. P. Crouch, the Hon. Secretary of the Kingston Branch of the MCU, penned a letter to the Surrey Comet newspaper in which he claimed that the Labour Socialists were ‘out for the nationalisation of everything’. Nationalisation in Russia, he warned, had ‘spelt absolute chaos’. He added: ‘We do not want the same result in England’.

In fact, the Bolshevik Revolution remained a useful ideological weapon for organisations such as the MCU, whose activists in Surrey and elsewhere remained markedly keen to always link the Soviet regime to all industrial unrest, or indeed any other signs of discontent, in the Britain of the 1920s.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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This entry was posted in British history, European History, Local History, Public History, Research, Russian History, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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