The Soviets’ Secret Agent in Australia

Undesirable: Captain Zuzenko and the Workers of Australia and the World
by Kevin Windle
Australian Scholarly, 2012, 274 pages, $39.95

Kevin Windle has reconstructed the hitherto unknown story of Captain Zuzenko, a Comintern agent who helped found the Communist Party of Australia. Alexander Zuzenko, born in Riga in 1884, became a mariner by profession, and a radical anarchist organiser by temperament. As journalism was one of his many careers, he left a paper trail of his propaganda activities, which has helped Windle trace the most important events in his life.

As a result of his early activities Zuzenko had to flee Tsarist Russia; he lived for a time among fellow Russian revolutionaries in London, like a character in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Zuzenko joined the large immigrant Russian community in Brisbane in 1911, where he immediately became involved in protests against the condition, as he saw it, of the Australian working classes in a capitalist society. The Queensland Russian anarcho-socialists were naturally further radicalised by the Bolshevik victory in 1917. Zuzenko’s great enthusiasms meant he was prone to get things out of perspective. It was strange that he complained so bitterly about conditions here, as Australia at that time had the best standard of living in the world for ordinary people. Windle drily comments that the Zuzenko family’s subsequent living conditions in Soviet Russia “made the working-class austerity of wartime Queensland seem luxurious in retrospect”.

Zuzenko briefly came to national attention when he led a protest march of unionists in Brisbane in 1919, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system and for solidarity with their Soviet brothers. Things got out of hand when a group of returned soldiers tore down their red banners; they attacked the Russian hall in South Brisbane during street disturbances over the next few days. Zuzenko was soon detained by the authorities for his subversive views and deported.

He returned to Russia where he moved in high Bolshevik circles, and mixed with such admirers of the Soviet experiment as Harry Pollitt, Willie Gallacher, Sylvia Pankhurst and Tom Mann. In 1919 he personally briefed Lenin on Australian conditions. The bosses of the new Third International (later called the Comintern) such as Karl Radek, were so impressed with Zuzenko’s claim that Australia was ripe for revolution that he was appointed as Australian representative of the organisation, and provided with generous funds to found the Australian Communist Party and to co-ordinate insurrectionary activities here. Having arrived back in Australia in 1922 equipped with an alias and a false passport, Zuzenko patched up squabbles between rival communist groups, but was soon found by police and again deported. One young intelligence officer who took an interest in his case was John Latham, later a Chief Justice of the High Court.

Zuzenko rejoined his wife and children in Russia, returning to his earlier career as a mariner for the rest of his life. He first captained a ship on the Leningrad–Hamburg–London route, then a faster passenger boat, the Smolny, taking tourists and Soviet sympathisers such as the Webbs, Anthony Blunt and Henri Barbusse, to Russia. As captain he would in his peremptory way harangue the passengers on the glories of Soviet life and confiscate books he considered anti-Soviet. He couldn’t disembark in Britain, from which he had also been deported.

Though publicly loyal to the Soviet regime, he may have had doubts privately. Caught up in the great purges of the late 1930s, he was suddenly arrested, condemned and summarily shot in 1938. Ironically it was prominent party members like him who had been most loyal to the regime, who were singled out for this treatment. He was charged with being a British spy, yet he couldn’t land in that country. His wife and three children survived in Russia for decades under conditions of great stress, deprivation and poverty. A person who knew many famous people and was just under the radar of fame himself (he was a subject of discussion in both the Australian and British parliaments), Zuzenko subsequently had a kind of after-life by being depicted in the works of prominent Russian writers like Alexei Tolstoi, Mikhail Bulgakov and Konstantin Paustovsky, who were struck by his forceful personality. 

Kevin Windle has previously co-edited a collection of documents on relations between the Communist Party of Australia and headquarters in Moscow, so he is familiar with this field. This biography is a fascinating, detective-like reconstruction, created by accessing an enormously wide range of sources, including British and Australian intelligence material. The goldmine is the files of the Comintern, available since the fall of Communism, which preserve Zuzenko’s communications, and instructions to him from the centre. Windle has had advice from Elena Govor, whose book Russian Anzacs pioneered this field. He has also covered the immense secondary literature on this topic, including James Normington-Rawling’s article “The Foundation of the Communist Party of Australia”, published in Quadrant in September-October 1965.

Windle has made the right decision in remaining objective in his account of Zuzenko’s life, letting the reader draw conclusions from the material he has dug out. To what extent are we to admire or dislike Zuzenko, who was a loner and a wanderer? People were drawn to him—he was a larger-than-life personality, tall, striking in looks, a natural leader who took initiatives. He was energetic, determined and forceful, but he was also an impetuous bully, a blinkered egoist who had no sense of the rights of others.

Zuzenko was totally ideological, without subtlety. Wherever he went he didn’t listen, he didn’t look, he simply imposed a pre-conceived blanket worldview of his own on everything, except conditions in the Soviet Union. He believed, like Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez and Frank Bainimarama, that he was always right and others were misguided—a sure recipe for disaster. He was an ideal type of the authoritarian personality. All this is depressingly familiar; it seems that certain people are attracted to such self-defeating ideological behaviour.

There were obvious contradictions in his outlook. Though he called for unity, he was in practice fissiparous, constantly writing vituperative condemnations of his closest colleagues. He was in favour of the coercion of free people. Though he wished to oppose the capitalists he also wrote: “The revolution itself is a struggle not only against the bourgeoisie, but against the ignorant and stupid workers and peasants.” Windle praises Zuzenko for at least having the courage of his misguided convictions, but I don’t think courage is the right word for him—foolhardiness would be more apt.

Zuzenko had one possibly original idea. Lenin had believed Russia was the “weakest link” in the capitalist system. Zuzenko adapted this by claiming in 1920 that Australia was the weakest link in the British imperial pantheon: “Bolshevik success in Australia may have decisive influence on the course of events in England and speed the progress of revolution there.” I don’t know if Zuzenko was the first to dream up this idea, but in any case it was wildly misguided. Insurrections in India, South Africa or Egypt may have upset the British imperial applecart at this stage, but Australia was among the strongest links in the chain of British dependencies.

Kevin Windle teaches Russian and Translation Studies at the Australian National University. He has access to language and research facilities which enabled him to write this wonderful book. It is important that the academic study of Russian history and culture continue in Australia, primarily because Russia is a great civilisation, but also because there are later examples of Soviet interference in our affairs which have not yet been fully disclosed.

Patrick Morgan has contributed to Quadrant since the 1960s.

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