The Irish socialist whose dream ended in the gulag
`Keep your heart up, everything is going to be well," wrote Padraic Breslin in Moscow to his wife, Daisy, back in Ireland. He was waiting for permission to leave Russia and join Daisy and their new daughter, Mairead. He knew he wasn't living in the "socialist paradise" he had been looking for when he first arrived at the age of 20, and he wanted to go home.
Daisy died in Dublin in 1983, having never remarried, still mystified as to the fate of her husband after his letters stopped coming in 1940.
A follower of the socialist ideals of Jim Larkin, Padraic grew up on the North Strand in Dublin and was writing articles for the Workers' Republic by the time he was 15. When he was 20, he was sent to Moscow with seven other young Irish communists to study at the Lenin School. An attractive young man with dreamy eyes and full lips, he became a journalist and translator, married a Russian girl and fathered two children. But by 1938, his marriage had broken up and he was openly critical of Stalin's "fascist" regime. He told a friend: "I don't live in a socialist world at all. I live in a prison and I want to go home."
He fell in love with Daisy McMackin, a redhead from Belfast with a gift for languages, after meeting her at a party in Moscow. Daisy had Republican connections in Ireland and was a recent graduate of Queen's and the Sorbonne. He immediately regretted his recent reluctant decision to give up his Irish passport (at that time, a person could be arrested for something as minor as not having Soviet citizenship). He married Daisy, who returned to Ireland shortly afterwards to have their baby (Soviet hospitals not being the most salubrious places in which to give birth). Mairead Breslin Kelly grew up knowing one thing about her father: that he had disappeared in Moscow during her infancy. As an adult, she was determined to find out why. Her journey of discovery led her to a first-time meeting with her Russian half-sister - Irina, a botanist - and half-brother Genrikh, a mathematician. Her first conversation with the latter took place over the phone from The Irish Times's Moscow office in 1993, thanks to Seamus Martin, then Moscow correspondent.
Barry McLoughlin, a Vienna-based Irish historian, uncovered the files which told the story of Mairead's father's arrest in 1940, followed by lengthy interrogations, an eight-year sentence in a concentration camp for "anti-Soviet agitation" and his death in the Kazan gulag in 1942, aged 35.
Mairead was in her early 50s by the time her attempts to trace him began to bear fruit. It was in 1991, when KGB files became available for scrutiny, that she was contacted by McLoughlin, a Limerick historian researching the stories of Austrian victims of the Stalinist Terror for the Austrian government. McLoughlin had come across Padraic's name and concluded, unsurprisingly, that he must have been Irish. He wanted to find out more. Under the 1991 Rehabilitation Law for victims of political oppression, he needed a letter of attorney from Padraic's family in order to gain access to his files. The story of how Mairead unravelled the events of her father's last years is depicted in a documentary to be shown on February 26th on RTE as part of the True Lives series. "It was a hugely emotional journey," says Yvonne MacDonald, Mairead's niece by marriage, who produced and directed the programme. "When you are dealing with family, there are delicate moments when they'd rather the camera wasn't there." (Mairead declined to be interviewed for this article, as the whole experience has been such an emotional upheaval.)
MacDonald discovered two "primary witnesses", one of whom, Mary Tsin, had been a friend of Padraic's first wife, Katya Kreizer, and could remember him well ("Mary Tsin is at least 90," estimates Yvonne). Tsin had looked after Padraic's two children by Katya during a period when both Katya and Padraic were under arrest. Tsin believes that, contrary to the official version of the cause of Padraic's death ("heart failure due to TB"), he may well have been shot. McLoughlin adds: "We just don't know. He was emaciated and suffered from general ill-health." Prior to his arrest, Padraic had been drinking heavily and had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the frustration of trying to get back to Ireland to rejoin his wife and baby.
The other primary witness is octogenarian Henry Lowenstein, a German medical student who was arrested at around the same time as Padraic and who wrote a book about his experiences at the Chistopol camp (where there were 85 people in each 10-metre by four-metre cell) and later as a doctor in the Kazan gulag. For MacDonald, the most chilling place visited by the production team during the making of the documentary was the Butyrka Prison in Moscow, a dank, filthy building which still houses 5,000 inmates in extremely crowded conditions.
"This is the first prison Padraic Breslin was sent to after his initial interrogation in Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB," she says. Padraic endured a total of 60 interrogations, with detailed questions about obscure and possibly dangerous Irish characters such as the writer, Liam O'Flaherty. Years before, when he had first arrived in Moscow, Padraic already had his doubts about Marxism, feeling it lacked a spiritual dimension. As time went by, he became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet Union.
"He saw it from the inside," says McLoughlin. "He saw the brutality of collectivisation in 1930, the deportations and the shootings of kulaks. He knew the cost of industrialisation, how the workers' wages were suppressed between 1928 and 1936, and the workers lived on tea and bread. He knew about the corruption, where privileged party members had their own special hospitals and holiday homes. "By 1936, when the Terror was starting, there were an increasing number of arrests for dissenting views. As a foreigner without Soviet citizenship, the outspokenly critical Breslin was especially at risk."
PADRAIC'S pleas to be allowed to return to Ireland were stymied at every turn. He was told by the Soviet authorities that he would be allowed to return if the Irish government would give him a new passport. However, de Valera, then minister for foreign affairs as well as taoiseach, cited the Citizenship Act of 1935 to the effect that Padraic, having renounced his Irish citizenship in favour of a second citizenship, could not be granted a further Irish passport and would be, in effect, "stateless". He would, however, be allowed to re-enter Ireland provided he could get permission to leave the Soviet Union. McLoughlin believes all this "was simply a game of cat and mouse. The Soviet authorities changed their tactics each time Breslin approached them. They simply weren't going to let him go. Once you had applied for Soviet citizenship, there was no way out". Padraic made several visits to the British Embassy, hoping for assistance. He was eventually arrested (as his first wife, Katya, had also been) on suspicion of being a foreign agent. "After three months they realised they had no case against him," says McLoughlin. "But they had enough material to accuse him of anti-Soviet agitation. Anyone could be accused of this: it was enough that somebody had heard you tell a joke about Stalin. Hours of interrogation broke down his resistance and he admitted to making certain remarks. He could therefore be charged with being `a socially dangerous element'."
He was sentenced in 1941 by a special board of the secret police and brought to Chistopol six months later in a cattle wagon. Later, he was sent to the Kazan gulag where he died three days after arrival. "I think of prisoners differently now," says Mairead in the programme. "My father's experience has made me realise what it's like to be deprived of your freedom."
The documentary shows a family reunion, in which Mairead goes to Russia to meet her half-brother and half-sister, taking with her two of her six daughters, Caitriona and Lara (who is studying Russian at TCD). The physical resemblance between Mairead and Irina has been passed on to Mairead's daughters. There is a scene in which Genrikh, a gifted linguist, proposes a toast in Irish to the absent Padraic ("Papa"). The toast, a traditional one, ends with the wish that the subject of the toast will die in Ireland. It is a wish that has been dear to many an expatriate, but one which did not come true for Padraic Breslin.
Amongst Wolves - Stalin's Irish Victim will be screened on Monday, February 26th on RTE One at 9.35 p.m. as part of the True Lives series.