Madame Despard Goes to Moscow: A Four Nations Perspective

Madame Despard Goes to Moscow: A Four Nations Perspective

Maurice Casey (University of Oxford) writes about the journey taken by Charlotte Despard, an Edinburgh-born Irish republican, to Soviet Moscow, and the impact it had on her personal and political identities.

In August 1930, Pravda, the official organ of the Soviet Communist Party, declared that Charlotte Despard, ‘the oldest woman in the Irish revolutionary movement’ was en-route to the USSR.[1] The journey was the culmination of a long political trajectory for Charlotte Despard, the eighty-three year old suffragette whose many causes included vegetarianism, Irish republicanism and Soviet-style socialism. This multifaceted political identity was complimented by her diffuse national makeup – born in Edinburgh, she spent the best part of her life fighting for the vote in England, before returning to her ancestral roots in 1921 by travelling to Dublin to take part in the Republican struggle. Her 1930 Soviet sojourn would both confirm her faith in the communist future and further cement her identity as an Irish woman.

Charlotte Despard (far left) with friends, c. 1930.
Wikimedia Commons.

Adopting a four nations approach to this peculiar journey by a unique traveller allows us to view how identities, both political and national, were shaped by visitors during their journey to the socialist-sixth-of-the-earth. 

The phenomenon of interwar travel to the Soviet Union was a profoundly internationalist experience – as indeed the Soviet authorities intended it to be. Right from the outset, passengers departing London on the SS Kooperatzia, which traversed the London to Leningrad route, were submerged in a lived experience of socialism. For Despard, this spirit of cooperation began through interactions with comrades, who comforted the half-blind madame on her voyage. Fellow Irish republicans, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and David Fitzgerald, joined her from her initial point of departure in Dublin. The sea-journey was also a cause for reunions as Despard encountered her old ally Helen Crawfurd, a Scottish suffragette and member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Wal Hannington, a Welsh communist, placed cushions for Despard upon the deck.[2]  The ship’s crew organised themselves along socialist principles, dispensing with ranks and often joining their passengers in hymns to international solidarity. Despard excitedly noted in her diary the spirit of equality on board: ‘no class, no separation… no superiorities.’[3] She retired to her cabin and dreamt of a world where the ‘spirit of domination’ would be ‘swept away.’[4] This dreamlike reality would continue after her arrival in Leningrad. 

While Despard’s fellow-visitors were immediately subjected to an intensive itinerary of factories, farms and mines, she was given separate – though no less exciting – treatment. Arrangements had been made to host Despard in an opulent palace that had once belonged to Tsarist royalty but now housed the ‘Home for the Veterans of the Revolution’ – fitting accommodation for someone who was the veteran of several campaigns. Her Scottish companion Crawfurd described how Despard was ‘in her element’ as she spoke with those who had been subject to imprisonment and exile in Russia’s revolutionary struggle, including many who had mutual friends with Despard.[5] She listened intently to a Russian woman, ‘as old as I am’, tell her story of imprisonment and long exile.[6] But Despard could not be confined to one location – especially when there was a new civilisation to explore.

 As a suffragette and Irish republican, Despard was a veteran of two struggles which had helped craft the modern political prisoner. Indeed, as Crawfurd noted, ‘Mrs Despard, coming from Ireland, was most anxious to investigate the prisons’.[7]  The authorities were only too happy to oblige, subjecting Despard to a gamut of pristine women’s, men’s and juvenile reformatories in the vicinity of Moscow. She even sought information on an ‘island-settlement’ where the ‘residue’ were being sent – most likely Sovlovki, an early node in the infamous Gulag network.[8] Of course, the prisons Despard visited were set-pieces and not indicative of the wider Soviet system. She was misled by the advice of Soviet guides who depicted to her a euphemistic vision of the prison system which obscured its brutal reality. But for someone who had regularly ‘sampled’ the prisons of Britain and Ireland, the airy showcases of Soviet justice proved a stark and impressive contrast.

  In Moscow, Despard was treated to Soviet experiences which particularly moved her. Soviet children were fascinating to Despard – and were apparently interested in her too. At one Soviet Children’s Home, kids ‘crowded round her, holding out their hands to be kissed and calling out “Babushkin.”[9] Taken to a sweet factory, Despard met with members of the Pioneers, the communist youth organisation. She told them that she ‘looked upon the Russian Revolution as the beginning of a better world’ and promised to bring some ‘Irish pioneers with me’ on her next visit to the USSR.[10] Though she never returned to Russia, this particular experience stuck with Despard in the closing act of her life – even after being ousted from her Dublin residence by an anti-communist mob in 1933. Removed to Belfast, she was observed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who recorded her at a 1934 meeting remembering her ‘greatest delight’, the ‘children of the revolution.’ She hoped she might live ten more years ‘to see those children grown into fine men and women.’[11] In 1939, at the age of 95, Despard died and was buried alongside her comrades and heroes in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.

Despard was transformed into a committed acolyte of the Soviet ideal not through Marxist debate or exacting literary analyses of the world’s only socialist state, but through lived experience. Feeling, smelling and interacting with the revolution reified her own political ethos while allowing her to perform the Irish national identity which she had adopted at the close of her epoch-spanning life. During the interwar period, socialist travellers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales departed the London docks together and set sail on a journey which often transformative them. Thanks to the survival of her diary, we know how Charlotte Despard felt as she took part in this unusual collective experience – looking upon an international congress of idealistic fellow-visitors she affirmed of the Soviet state that ‘defeated she never will be’.[12] Perhaps, in our present era of political excitement and uncertainty, we might recognise in Despard’s journey the faults of misplaced utopianism while praising the sincerity of her desire for a harmonious future.   

[1] ‘Angliiskie rabochie delegatzie edyt v sssr’, Pravda, 6 August 1930.  

[2] Wal Hannington to Teresa Billington Grieg, 13 September 1961, Teresa Billington Grieg Papers, Women’s Library, 7/TBG1/84.

[3] Diary of Charlotte Despard, 8 August 1930, Charlotte Despard Papers, Women’s Library, HCA/CHE/2/1/7CFD/C, Box no. FL558.

[4] Ibid, 9 August 1930.

[5] Helen Crawfurd, unpublished autobiography manuscript, Marx Memorial Library, Helen Crawfurd Collection, HC/1/3, p. 327.

[6] Despard diary, 13 August 1930.

[7] Crawfurd memoir, 333.

[8] Despard diary, 27 August 1930.

[9] Crawfurd memoir, p. 331.

[10] Despard diary, 29 August 1930.

[11] ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’, Meeting in Belfast, 27 January 1934, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Home Affairs, HA 32/1/551.

[12] Despard diary, 23 August 1930.

Maurice Casey is a first year DPhil student at the University of Oxford. His research examines the international connections of Irish radical women. You can follow him on Twitter: @MauriceJCasey.

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