Printed in Russian every Sunday from 1942 to 1949, Britansky Soyuznik [British Ally] was the only Western newspaper available in the Soviet Union throughout the war. Moscow reciprocated with “Soviet War News” published in Britain by Sovinformburo – the forerunner of Sputnik News.
There were various specialist publications for different sections of the Soviet professional "elite" as the British Embassy in the USSR put it but “none which is read so widely, or one may say, so carefully as the British Ally”.
With a print run of up to 50,000 copies, the newspaper had a readership of about three-quarters of a million due to people passing the paper around, and public libraries across the Soviet Union stocking copies.
According to the British Embassy in the Soviet Union, which housed the Editorial Board of the newspaper, “Most of our readers are fairly well to do people but a readership of this size also brings us in touch with a section of the broad masses especially in Moscow and in the Red Army, where many of our subscribers are found".
Paper Vanguard of the Second Front
It is understood that the idea of such a publication belonged to none other than the British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill himself, who addressed Soviet readers in the paper’s inaugural issue in 1942.
“The cause of every Russian fighting for his land and his home is the cause of all free people in any part of the world”.
Perhaps, the clue to Churchill’s initiative was in the newspaper’s feature about British commando forces, which Britansky Soyuznik described as the “vanguard of the Second Front”.
Of course, in 1942 the second front was a long way away, and the inability of the Anglo-American allies to immediately open up the second front was a major irritant to the Soviet Union who bore the brunt of the war against the Nazis.
British Ally strove to impress on Soviet leaders and people that Britain's war effort was on par with the gargantuan struggle on the Russian Front.
The British Ministry of Information, MOI created to promote London’s role in the war was “very annoyed”, its papers reveal, with Russian press “claiming all the credit” for beating the common enemy. MOI sought to persuade the Soviet people of the importance of the other theatres of war for the successes of the Red Army.
Hence, British Ally was supplied by MOI with stories about the allied bombing of German war industries, the campaigns in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and Arctic convoys bringing much needed American and British war supplies to the Red Army. Due to the mortal danger to the convoys from German U-boats, the articles were understandably short on specifics about the operations. After Soviet forces liberated northern Norway, thereby denying the U-boats their bases in the Norwegian fjords and freedom to hunt the allied convoys down, more details were revealed to the paper’s Russian readers.
A cipher cable from MOI advised the British Embassy in Moscow, where the newspaper was being put together:
“We may occasionally wish to publish certain articles in Soyuznik for definite political reasons. In such cases we shall prefix the text with the code words ‘Attention White’, meaning “following should be published in full in the earliest possible number of Souyznik, having been agreed as a matter of policy with the Foreign Office”.
The reason for such an instruction was, the cipher explained, that the editor of Britansky Soyuznik had failed to publish a speech by PM Churchill in full.
On another occasion, another politician got the “special” treatment – this time Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, who wrote an article for Britansky Soyuznik paying tribute to the sacrifice of the Soviet people, hailing the victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad and calling for more help for the USSR.
The Foreign Office was disappointed. They expected Masaryk’s “sympathies to lie much more with this country [Britain – NG] and America than with Russia”. The Foreign Office asked MOI to “tell Masaryk that his article…is not exactly what we wanted and to suggest to him exactly what additions you would like to make…” The addition that Masaryk was required by London to insert into his article was to tell readers “that the Czechoslovak government is convinced that this country [Britain – NG] and the United States of America are doing all that is humanly possible to bring help quickly to Europe”.
Look, no Russian Censors!
In contrast to what the British Embassy called “the weekly news directive from the Ministry of Information” the paper enjoyed no interference from Soviet censors, as testified to by MP Wilfrid Burke in the British Parliament:
“The Soviet authorities have not imposed any formal conditions with regard to the contents and it is not subject to Soviet censorship”.
With Moscow’s agreement, the editorial policy was fully in the hands of the British as explained by then-Undersecretary of State Ernest Davies:
“The function of British Ally is to inform its readers of British ways, views, events and institutions, and to reflect British policy. It reproduces ministerial statements, texts of official notes, and comment from the British Press on subjects likely to be of direct interest to the Soviet reader, many of which are strongly critical of Soviet policy and actions".
Given the Western perception of Soviet press censorship such editorial independence was astounding and even raised concerns among British politicians about the safety of the paper’s Russian readership.
At one point Davies had to allay Earl Winterton’s fears raised in Parliament that reading the paper posed a deadly risk to its Soviet readers.
“I would not accept the assumption of the noble Lord, because British Ally is on public sale in kiosks in Moscow and other Russian cities, and I very much doubt whether the persons who purchase it do so at the risk of their lives".
On Britansky Soyuznik's first anniversary in 1943 Reuters cited “high officers of the Red Army” who said that copies of the newspaper “were literally read to shreds” by troops at the front.
”Our first agreeable surprise was the agreement of the Soviet authorities to the publication of the British Ally", wrote a British diplomat …”we have all along enjoyed a great measure of support for this publication from the Soviet authorities".
One year after the launch of British Ally, in August 1943 a top official from the Soviet Foreign Ministry told the British Press Attaché in Moscow that “besides being unique as a foreign paper published in the Soviet Union, we were a valuable part of the Soviet press”.
From Propaganda Sheet to Broadsheet
Despite its mission of propagating Britain's role in the war to the Soviet people, the paper strove not to look like a propaganda leaflet, although it was referred to as being one in the British government’s internal discussions. Gradually it introduced features of a respectable broadsheet with articles on culture, science, and sports as well as cartoons from the likes of Punch.
This was largely due to its wartime editor George Reavey. A prominent surrealist poet, publisher, translator, and art collector was an unlikely choice to edit an overtly political publication.
Born in 1907 in the Russian Empire to an Irish father and a Russian mother, Reavey went to a Russian school and became fully bilingual. He moved to Belfast amid the upheaval of the Russian Civil War in 1919. He read history and literature at Cambridge and went on to rub shoulders with the likes of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Having relocated to Paris, Reavey befriended many Russian writers and poets and started translating such literary giants as Bunin, Mayakovsky, and Pasternak into English.
It was only natural for him to employ another literary giant, J B Priestley as a contributor to British Ally. Priestley’s wartime engagement with Russia culminated in late 1945 when his new play “An Inspector Calls” was allowed to debut in Moscow rather than in London.
There was an ironic parallel in the way the paper and its famous contributor were eventually shut out of the media domain. Complaints about J B Priestley’s left-wing leanings forced Churchill to cancel Priestley’s extremely popular wartime BBC broadcasts (more popular than Churchill’s own), while complaints about British Ally’s propaganda spelled the end of the road for the newspaper.
Long and Winding Road
As the war was drawing to a close London was becoming increasingly worried about the future of Britansky Soyuznik, a “valuable organ of British publicity”. With war news petering out MOI suggested using the weekly “merely to publicize Great Britain in an entirely non-controversial way”. The Foreign Office preferred a different approach: “to attempt to insinuate the British point of view on major controversial questions into the closed Soviet world”.
But the fear was that Moscow would find an excuse to kill such an ally off. The British Embassy was already concerned over reports of falling sales and issues with the supply of print paper. But to their amazement the Soviet state distributor kept paying for the full print run, regardless of the growing numbers of unsold copies, effectively subsidising British propaganda – and the British Embassy! The revenue generated by Britansky Soyuznik covered almost all the expenditure of the Embassy’s Press Department. The British were bewildered and mulled over all sorts of conspiracy theories as to Stalin’s motives.
But the death blow to Britansky Soyuznik came not from Stalin but from within the British Embassy.
In quick succession in 1949-1950 two of the paper’s British editors resigned in protest against what they saw as Britain’s hostility towards Russia.
The Last Drop Was NATO
First was the weekly’s Chief Editor Archibald Johnstone who replaced Reavey at the end of the war. In May 1949, he published a letter in the flagship Soviet newspaper “Pravda” announcing his resignation from the post and renouncing his British citizenship. In his article and later at a press conference for foreign and Soviet journalists in Moscow he explained that his decision was driven by the creation of NATO and the deterioration in Anglo-Soviet relations.
“The real nature of the North Atlantic Pact is becoming clearer to everyone: a military bloc headed by America and England, directed primarily against the Soviet Union”.
The Labour government, Johnstone said, had departed from the mandate it received from the electorate in July 1945 to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union and had fallen wholly under the influence of the US.
Johnstone accused the British Embassy of being “bitterly anti-Soviet”, saying that “a person with even moderately progressive views is unwelcome there”.
He was seconded by another British journalist, Ralf Parker of Telepress who “emphatically supported the statement that the British Embassy in Moscow was anti-Soviet”.
Johnstone explained that he had to give up his post and citizenship in order to devote himself to the cause of peace since in Britain he would have had no access to the BBC and the big newspapers would not have published his opinions.
“It is true there is no Un-American Committee in Britain so far, but Britain is heading rapidly that way. As it is, almost the whole machinery for the expression of public opinion is closed and they are forced to do their work at street corners".
To the immediate accusations in the British press that he was a closet Communist or a “fellow-traveller” Johnstone replied that he was neither but the Foreign Office would not tolerate even a “pre-Bevin type of Labourist” in its ranks.
“Most journalists know that the British ‘Labour’ government’s Foreign Service is staffed almost exclusively by old-school-tie conservatives".
In an ironic twist to the story, the next to resign from the Editorial Board of Britansky Soyuznik was not even a Labourist but a former member of the Conservative Party, Robert Daglish. In March 1950, it was his turn to write to “Pravda”, accusing the British government of selling the country to the US-dominated NATO.
“Working in the British Embassy in Moscow I have seen enough of the activity of experts who… engage in fabricating slander and deception. With their help, the government of my country tries and hopes to arouse a hostile feeling for the Soviet Union in the British people and draw my generation into a new world war".
Daglish, who served for four years in the Royal Air Force, recalled his job interview for the post of assistant editor of Britansky Soyuznik. The interviewer asked if he supported Labour or the Conservatives.
“This undoubtedly is one and the same thing, but I hope you are not a Communist… Then you have a splendid career ahead of you”.
While serving at the British Embassy in Moscow concluded Daglish:
“I had to make the choice between a successful career in the role of the slanderer and a struggle against the policy of war. I chose the policy of peace".
Having suffered two blows to the reputation of Britansky Soyuznik, London decided it could no longer "keep calm and carry on" and closed the paper down. But not before the BBC was commissioned by the British government to start broadcasts in Russian to the Soviet Union.
Wartime Comradeship Cut Short
Addressing Soviet readers on Victory Day in 1945, British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden reminded them of what he said in the first issue of the paper in 1942:
“The governments of our two countries pledged themselves not to lay down their arms until the defeat of Hitlerite Germany and to twenty years of collaboration and mutual assistance thereafter. Our first objective has been gloriously attained: Germany has surrendered unconditionally".
“Now we look forward to a period of peaceful cooperation, in which we shall face problems of a new kind. We must solve them in the same spirit of comradeship and determination as we have solved those of war".
Alas, it only took one year for Russia’s wartime ally Churchill to come up with his March 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri that signalled the start of the Cold War. With the creation of NATO in April 1949, the fate of Churchill’s wartime child was sealed. British Ally was killed off by the end of the year.