Secret Cables of the Comintern, 1933-1943

Secret Cables of the Comintern, 1933-1943

by Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov

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Drawing on secret and therefore candid coded telegraphs exchanged between Communist Party leaders around the world and their overseers at the Communist International (Comintern) headquarters in Moscow, this book uncovers key aspects of the history of the Comintern and its significant role in the Stalinist ruling system during the years 1933 to 1943. New…  See more details below


Drawing on secret and therefore candid coded telegraphs exchanged between Communist Party leaders around the world and their overseers at the Communist International (Comintern) headquarters in Moscow, this book uncovers key aspects of the history of the Comintern and its significant role in the Stalinist ruling system during the years 1933 to 1943. New information on aspects of the People’s Front in France, civil wars in Spain and China, World War II, and the extent of the Comintern’s cooperation with Soviet intelligence is brought to light through these archival records, never examined before.

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Foreign Affairs

“This compilation of historical documents on the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet tool for controlling foreign communist parties, represents the latest contribution to Yale University Press’ invaluable Annals of Communism series.”—Foreign Affairs

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Yale University Press
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Annals of Communism Series
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Secret Cables of the Comintern 1933â?"1943



Copyright © 2014 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-19822-5


Ciphered Communications and the History of the Communist International

The ciphered communications of the Comintern form only a part of its history. Often short and technical, frequently concerned with routine administrative matters, these cables also provide a unique window on the ways in which the Soviet Union, through its control of the financing, staffing, and bureaucratic structure of the Comintern, imposed its will on Communist parties around the world.

The Comintern's headquarters were, of course, located in Moscow. Despite its formal status as a collection of independent Communist parties united as a transnational organization dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, no one involved in its functioning could have been unaware that it was ultimately a Soviet institution. The ostensible aim of the Comintern was the promotion of worldwide proletarian revolution. As the directing body of the forces of revolution around the world, the Communist International provided guidance and support for parties struggling to duplicate the success of the Bolshevik Revolution. The vast bulk of the cipher communications may have dealt with prosaic matters such as financing, personnel, and resources, but the communications also enabled Comintern leaders to monitor and direct the activities of its constituent parties to ensure that they complied with the general political line whose contours were laid out in the documents of the congresses and plenums of the ECCI and in various declarations and appeals. The cipher correspondence also demonstrates in detail how the core of the Comintern's policy was its support for and defense of the USSR.

The theoretical basis for the uniting of ranks of the Communist parties around the Soviet Union was the provision of the Platform of the Comintern, adopted at its first congress in March 1919, concerning the need "to subordinate so-called national interests to the interests of international revolution." Acknowledgment of the priority of the interests of "world revolution" (later identified with the interests of the Soviet state) transformed the Comintern sections into "tools of Moscow."

Everything that served the interests of the USSR was of fundamental importance. The Program of the Comintern, adopted at its sixth congress in August 1928, triumphantly proclaimed that "the international proletariat, which has its sole fatherland in the USSR, the major bastion of its achievements and the major factor in its international liberation, is duty-bound to promote the successes of socialist con- struction in the USSR and through all possible measures to protect it from attacks by capitalist powers." In practice, this provision was much more important than general principles or the needs of the workers' movement of any country.

One of the episodes in Arthur Koestler's powerful anti-Communist novel, Darkness at Noon, spoke directly to that point, portraying the suicide of a Communist militant after a Comintern representative ordered Belgian Communist dockworkers to violate a Soviet-supported boycott in order to unload Soviet goods destined for Italy. Koestler's example was not fictional. Dimitry Manuilsky, a member of the Presidium of the ECCI, sent a coded telegram on June 28, 1936, to the Belgian Communist Party: "The Antwerp dockers' strike has detained 9 Soviet ships. Through your supporters on the board of the Union of Transport Workers and the strikers' committee, raise the issue of the need to unload the Soviet vessels, since the strike is aimed at the capitalists and not at a socialist country. In so doing there is a need to avoid friction among the strikers over this issue." Alexander Lozovsky, head of the Profintern, Comintern's trade union arm, added his endorsement, noting that the issue was to be raised orally, so as not to leave a paper trail.

Acting on the international stage as an advocate for and champion of the Soviet system, encouraging acts of solidarity with Soviet policy, the Comintern played the role of the USSR's foreign policy bulwark. It acted as an integral part of the ideological and political mechanism used by Stalin and his entourage to give a stamp of approval on behalf of the "world proletariat" to the policy conducted by this regime. Such a role was particularly noticeable in the ECCI dispatches every year on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Party's seizure of power in Russia. Communist parties were ordered to pay particular attention to propaganda touting the achievements of the Soviet Union. A typical message, sent to the Greek CP, instructed: "In carrying out the campaign for the sixteenth anniversary of the October Revolution there is a need to stress the difference between the situation of the broad masses of workers and peasants living under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, regardless of its 'democratic' or fascist form, and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR." The Greeks were also advised to contrast the USSR's Five-Year Plan with Hitler's Four-Year Plan and Roosevelt's New Deal and to emphasize the "positive results" of Soviet collectivization. And the peaceful foreign policy of the Soviet Union was to be contrasted with the machinations of all the imperialist powers.

The message of the ECCI to all of the Comintern sections on the occasion of the eleventh anniversary of Lenin's death was more pompously emotional in tone. The instructions read as follows:

Hold the Leninist days in an atmosphere of acquainting the broad masses with the enormous achievements of socialism achieved in over eleven years under Stalin's leadership on the road to the implementation of Lenin's behests, with the successes of the peaceful policy of Soviet power and the international closing of ranks under the banner of the struggle for the Soviets of all those who are exploited and oppressed worldwide. Publicize and expand awareness of the fundamental issues of Leninism, first and foremost the problems of the seizure of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the roles of the Communist Party, the organization of the United Front of the working class and its allies on the basis of the irreconcilable revolutionary struggle against class enemies and opportunism, against the imperialist war, against nationalism and chauvinism, against fascism and the entire capitalist system, for the historic objectives of the working class. Engage in a campaign for the theoretical arming of Party personnel and the strengthening of the Bolshevik Party spirit, vigilance, and the refusal to be reconciled to any and all deviations leading into the camp of the class enemy. Take particular note of Stalin's role as the best and most worthy successor to Lenin, his achievements in the area of further work on problems of Marxism-Leninism, and also of Lenin's and Stalin's role in the working-class movement of the country. Devote the newspaper issues of 21 and 22 January to the campaign.

The ECCI carefully monitored the way the Communist press wrote about Stalin, trying to ensure that all his statements were immediately translated, published in full, and appropriately commented on by foreign Communist parties. All of the parties were sent directives from the Secretariat of the ECCI complaining that a speech by Stalin at the First All-Union Conference of Stakhanovites in 1935 had not been given the attention it deserved:

In a number of countries Stalin's speech was not sufficiently understood.... The Party press provided virtually no explanation of Stalin's speech.... Here is a need to hold a discussion with the editorial staffs, editorial conferences, a meeting of the Party activists to provide, on the basis of Stalin's speech, clarity regarding problems of the USSR throughout all of the Party propaganda. Stalin's speech must be the focal point for popularizing the Stakhanovite movement.... Insofar as possible there must be organization of open meetings, discussions, conferences on the significance of Stalin's speech and the Stakhanovite movement.... There is a need to provide for the urgent publication and mass distribution of Stalin's speech and other mass pamphlets on the Stakhanovite movement.

Paeans to Stalin produced around the world were transmitted to Moscow by cable, and Georgi Dimitrov, the ECCI general secretary, frequently passed them along to Stalin's secretariat as evidence of his role as leader of the world proletariat. The details of a meeting in Damascus on 6 November 1937, were transmitted to the Soviet leader, hailed as the "Great comrade, beloved leader of the world proletariat, the hope of the workers, peasants, and oppressed peoples of the entire world." Syrian CP leaders reported:

On the victories won by the USSR during the 20 years under Your wise leadership, a leadership of genius, [the meeting] sends You, who laid the first mighty cornerstone in the cause of freeing all the oppressed peoples of the world, heartfelt greetings and their most sincere and warm wishes. [The practice of capitalizing "You" and "Your" in messages to Stalin was common in Comintern communications.] We note with pride that under Your leadership our Soviet fatherland has succeeded in achieving its goal of a socialist life. We note with pride and joy that thanks to You Soviet power has succeeded in crushing the gang of spies and traitors, the agents of world fascism, the Trotskys, Bukharins, and Tukhachevskys. We wish You, our dear and great comrade, long life, so that you may lead the land of the Soviets to Communism and help the working masses of the entire world to free themselves from capitalist exploitation, fascist barbarism, and the imperialist yoke.

The ECCI demanded emphasis on the process of writing and adopting the new Soviet Constitution. In instructions to all sections of the Comintern sent on June 15, 1936, the ECCI Secretariat insisted on the publication in full of the draft Constitution in party newspapers and as a separate published brochure. "There is a need, no matter what, to create a situation in which the Constitution of the socialist state indeed becomes the property of millions of the masses," the message emphasized. "Its distribution and explanation among the Social Democratic working masses is particularly important. There is a need to have it made available for discussion by the mass meetings of workers, other strata of workers, the intelligentsia, all friends of peace and human progress; to systematically publish in the newspapers the resolutions of meetings, letters of workers, responses and comments by noticeable figures, to interview them; to organize appeals from participants in the meetings, individual organizations of workers, and eminent individuals' addresses to the workers of the USSR, etc."

Several coded dispatches contained criticism of the Communist parties for having published only excerpts from the Constitution and for having failed to emphasize it sufficiently. One dispatch, sent on 25 November 1936, insisted that the front pages of party newspapers write about the Congress of Soviets at which the Constitution was adopted, publish daily articles by party leaders with reactions from workers and public figures, and republish Pravda articles. "Stalin's report and text Constitution must reach millions through publication of special newspaper supplements, mass pamphlets, utilization of all connections to trade unions and other press.... Resolutions adopted at meetings, addresses to toilers of the Soviet Union, to Stalin, initiator and author of the Soviet Constitution, are to be published in press and sent here."

One of the main purposes of the propaganda campaign glorifying the Soviet Constitution, with its long list of democratic guarantees and idealistic assurances, was to counter the ugly reality of Stalinist repression and purges. The ECCI frequently warned in its communications that non-Communist sources that circulated stories about Soviet repression or difficulties were not to be believed. When a Dutch Communist newspaper printed a Reuters story about a murder on a Soviet collective farm, the ECCI sent a message: "Suggest to the editor maximum caution in dealing with information about the Soviet Union coming from bourgeois sources." The barrage of information about the Constitution "must be so widely and ably organized that the wild anti-Soviet campaign of the fascists and their Trotskyist agency be brought to naught."

Unlike most of the governmental bodies through which Soviet power and control were exercised, the Comintern had a public persona that suggested it was truly an international organization. Some of its most powerful figures in the 1930s, ranging from Georgi Dimitrov (Bulgarian) to Wilhelm Pieck (German) were not Soviet citizens. Many of the cadres who worked at its headquarters had been dispatched to Moscow by their respective Communist parties. Others were political exiles from around the world. Even its technical experts, responsible for translation, producing forged passports and other official papers, and setting up means of contact, included a significant number of foreigners. Numerous books and articles about the foreign Communists who were among the most successful and glamorous Soviet intelligence officers have emphasized their facility with languages and their cosmopolitan flair, which enabled them to blend into different European or Asian societies and recruit assets by finding appropriate ways to appeal to those in a position to provide information. The Comintern had its own cadre of world travelers. The traits necessary for a Comintern operative were not dissimilar from those required for intelligence work. Living under false identities, crossing international borders with doctored papers, holding clandestine meetings, avoiding surveillance, and communicating surreptitiously with Moscow were all assets transferable between seeking to build a world revolution and seeking to steal secrets. Gregory Kheifets is one example of a Comintern operative who moved between the worlds of political subversion and espionage. From 1923 to 1929 Kheifets worked abroad for the Comintern in Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and China. In 1931 he transferred to the NKVD (Russian acronym of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the main security and foreign intelligence instrument of the regime) and was sent abroad on multi-year intelligence missions to Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and (twice) the United States.

But most Comintern operatives lived far more prosaic and dull lives than their intelligence counterparts did. This is not to say that they did not face dangers. Comintern operatives could and did face arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even death. Particularly for those tasked to assist local Communist parties involved in armed revolts or uprisings or assigned to countries with few or no legal protections for someone charged with political subversion, a Comintern assignment could be fatal. Most Comintern emissaries, however, were paymasters and conduits for passing along instructions and requests, enabling Communist parties to carry out their activities in accordance with plans developed with the approval of the Soviet Union. They were the eyes and ears of Moscow on the ground in New York, Paris, London, Prague, and numerous other locales, a constant reminder to American, French, British, or Czech Communists that not only were their political struggles part of an international campaign, but they were also being watched and judged by people beholden to a bureaucracy in Moscow and totally unaccountable and unknown to the vast majority of the local party's members. And for many Comintern workers the most dangerous part of their assignment was that they were very likely to run afoul not of capitalist police or executioners, but the NKVD, the sword and shield of the Soviet state. Far more Comintern employees died in the cellars of the Lubyanka Prison than abroad.

The Comintern, of course, made no secret of its existence. It published a variety of newspapers and magazines, openly distributed and read, containing analyses of events around the world, reporting on the resolutions and decisions of its leading bodies, and periodically reminding bourgeois governments that they were slated for destruction. Although many of the deliberations of its leading bodies, including the Executive Committee, were conducted in secret and key decisions were never reported publicly, others were given wide dissemination and Communists around the world took pride in being members of an international revolutionary body.

For the first decade of its existence, the Comintern also made no secret of its interference in the affairs of its constituent parties. It had published a list of conditions for membership in 1920, and it regularly and openly signaled its approval or disapproval of their policies and leadership. When internal disputes got out of hand or seemed intractable, the Comintern dispatched emissaries from Moscow with orders to mediate among and/or impose solutions on the warring factions. On occasion the decisions were published in the party press with no effort to conceal the key role of the Moscow plenipotentiary.


Excerpted from Secret Cables of the Comintern 1933â?"1943 by FRIDRIKH I. FIRSOV, Harvey Klehr, JOHN EARL HAYNES, Lynn Visson. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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