Hidden behind the iron curtain

 

Among those who fell foul of the Soviet system were three Irishmen whose stories are recalled by Seamus Martin.

Saint Patrick's Day in the Irish Embassy in Moscow was different to the national holiday at Irish Embassies throughout the world. Invariably during the annual reception a small bearded man would approach the baby-grand piano in the main reception room and, with great solemnity, place a photo upon it.

The picture was taken in the Lubyanka headquarters of the Soviet Secret Police. It showed a man in his early 30s in right profile and full face. Pasted underneath was his prison identification Number 5667, the name "Breslin P F" in Cyrillic script and his birth year of 1907.

The bearded man, Genrikh Patrikeyevich Kreitser, was Patrick Breslin's son.

Each year this ritual represented the return to Irish territory of a father whose attempts to go home during his lifetime had led to his arrest, imprisonment and death.

Genrikh was a dear friend, a frequent visitor to my Moscow apartment. He would arrive unexpectedly, the neck of a bottle of vodka peeping from a coat pocket. A small gesture would be accompanied by the Irish phrase "Ar eagla na h-eagla". Later he would leave the remains of the vodka for me and depart with half the contents of my fridge.

Over the years we celebrated his successes. The official rehabilitation of his father, the removal of allegations of espionage, was a notable occasion.

There was an uncanny moment too when, in the successful process of applying for Irish citizenship, he had received his father's birth certificate. It showed Patrick Breslin to be the son of Francis Breslin born in Ardara in Co Donegal in 1864.

My own grandfather, Francis Martin, was born just outside Ardara around the same time. They must have known each other as neighbours and here were their two grandsons 2,000 miles away and a couple of hundred years later as friends in Moscow.

Genrikh's father was one of three Irishmen who lost their lives in the terrible years of Stalin's rule. He had come to study but died an exhausted man in a prison camp in Kazan in Tatarstan.

Bryan Goold-Verschoyle, Anglo-Irishman of Donegal provenance, English public schoolboy and operative for Soviet espionage, died a prisoner in Russia too. The third victim, Sean McAteer, a gunman of many aliases in the US and the UK, IRA man, communist, associate of Jim Larkin and Liam O'Flaherty, was executed by firing squad in Odessa in 1937.

The stories of the three men are brought together in Barry McLoughlin's Left to the Wolves, published by Irish Academic Press of Dublin and Portland Oregon. McLoughlin paints a portrait of three men who had little in common other than their left-wing views and their deaths as prisoners in Russia.

Breslin was a revolutionary from an early age and heard of the opportunity to study in Moscow on March 8th, 1928 when he was just 21. He was on his way just five days later via London, Dover, Ostend and Berlin.

The International Lenin School did not provide the opportunity for further education that Breslin expected. It was a forcing ground designed to turn young revolutionaries into party officials who would enforce the Moscow line on their return to their home countries.

The young Irishman was not cut out for this. His interests in astrology, the theosophy of Yelena Blavatskaya (Madame Blavatsky), spiritualism and Indian mysticism were far removed from the dialectical materialism of the USSR.

Breslin was dismissed from the school but, having married Katya Kreitser in May 1929, he applied for permission to stay in the USSR.

Katya Kreitser, who was to bear two of Breslin's children, was a member of the NKVD secret service and later a victim of the terror. Her superiors were suspicious of her marriage to a foreigner and made it clear that her husband must become a Soviet citizen. The pressure became intense in 1936. Breslin, by then a journalist and translator, finally applied for and was granted citizenship.

Breslin had now entered a cul-de-sac from which he was never able to depart.

After divorce from Katya Kreitser and a whirlwind romance with and marriage to Margaret (Daisy) McMackin, a brilliant young linguist from Ireland who worked with a Moscow publishing house, Breslin's thoughts turned towards home. Late in 1937, as the terror reached its height, Daisy returned to Ireland, where her daughter Mairead Breslin-Kelly still lives.

Every effort Breslin made to join his wife in Ireland led him deeper into trouble. There were visits to the British embassy which looked after Irish interests at the time.

As the Irish authorities procrastinated about allowing him to return, the visits increased. Each visit was noted. A formal request to renounce his Soviet citizenship was noted too. A drunken rendition of God Save the King at a Moscow club was dutifully used as evidence against him.

He managed somehow to escape the bloodbaths of 1937-38 but by Christmas 1940 was being interrogated in the Lubyanka.

He was then moved to Lefortovo Prison and subjected to serial sleep-deprivation. By July 1941 Breslin was declared a "socially dangerous element" and by June 1942 was on his way in a crowded cattle wagon to a small Gulag near Kazan. He arrived emaciated and died on June 21st according to the records of "heart failure caused by TB".

BRIAN GOOLD-VERSCHOYLEcame from an Anglo-Irish family in Dunkineely in south-west Co Donegal.

His schooling was typically upper-class: Aravon in Bray was followed by Portora in Enniskillen and Marlborough in England where the poets John Betjeman and Louis MacNeice and the spy Anthony Blunt had been among his predecessors.

He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s and travelled to Moscow in 1933 aged 21 to visit his brother Neil whom he idolised. Neil Goold-Verschoyle, though not a party member, worked in Moscow as a journalist and married an NKVD agent Olga Dobrova.

What followed was bizarre. Brian, thinking he was signing a contract for a job as an electrician, signed up as an NKVD spy. Having discovered his new profession, he blabbed to his close friends and family. A period in Moscow was followed by a special mission to Spain during that country's civil war.

Told not to correspond with his lover Lotte Moos in England, he did the opposite. Then came a dramatic kidnap by the NKVD in which Brian was taken to a ship, locked up and brought to Russia. There he faced trial and in August 1934 was sentenced to eight years in prison for "counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities". He died at a camp in the Orenburg region on January 5th, 1942, aged 30.

SEAN MCATEER, ALIASMcIntyre, alias McEntee, alias McGinty, alias David Ivanovich Twist, came from that no-man's-land between north Co Louth, south Co Down and south Co Armagh. He was variously described as being from Dundalk and Newry. His career included membership of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) in the US. Arrested in San Francisco in 1917 for draft dodging, he was released after three months and went on the run. He did another stretch in Shoshone Idaho as John McEntee on a charge of the anti-union offence of "Criminal Syndicalism".

He was Sean Mac an tSaoir back in Ireland, where his penchant for fantasy knew few bounds. He boasted falsely that he seized "all the land belonging to the aristocrats" in Co Cork, then moved to Liverpool where he was involved in a daring but dismally organised armed robbery in which he shot a man dead.

McAteer ended up in Odessa in Ukraine running a sailors' club and later teaching English at the height of the terror. His Irish nationalism caused him to tear off the royal insignia on the British school primer, Royal Readers, which he used in teaching the language.

A drunken spree in 1937 in which he accused the Communist Party boss in Odessa of being a Trotskyist was reported to the authorities. He was summoned to explain himself three days later but was still drunk and repeated the allegation.

Eventually one of the charges laid against him was that "he attempted to deceive the party organisation by tearing out the title page of Royal Readers".

Accused of "subversive wrecking" cultivating "counter-revolutionary bourgeois thoughts" and being an Italian spy, McEntee was sentenced to death by shooting on November 16th 1937. The sentence was carried out before the end of the month.

Left to the Wolves , by Barry McLoughlin, is published by Irish Academic Press.