By Phillip Deery
The controversies surrounding the life, reputation and legacy of the famous Australian reporter and journalist, Wilfred Burchett, would be well known to many readers. One central allegation, on which much ink has been split, is that he was an ‘agent of influence’ for the KGB. This claim was first raised in the scholarly literature by Robert Manne in his ‘The Fortunes of Wilfred Burchett: A New Assessment’, Quadrant 29:8 (August 1985), 7-15. This article was expanded into Agent of Influence: The Life and Times of Wilfred Burchett (Toronto: The Mackenzie Institute, 1989) and reprinted as ‘He Chose Stalin: The Case of Wilfred Burchett’ in The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia (Melbourne; Text, 1994). More recently, Manne published ‘Agent of Influence: Reassessing Wilfred Burchett’, The Monthly 35 (June 2008).
Manne is not Burchett’s sole detractor. Mark Aarons, ‘Cut to size by the force of history’, Australian Literary Review, 4 June 2008, Peter Hruby, Dangerous Dreamers: The Australian Anti-Democratic Left and Czechoslovak Agents (New York: iUniverse, 2010), ch.2, Tibor Méray, On Burchett (Melbourne: Callistemon, 2008), and Roland Perry, The Exile: Burchett, Reporter of Conflict (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1988) – amongst others – all subscribe to the view that Wilfred Burchett was an ‘unalloyed communist propagandist’ and ‘devoted scribe’ for the Soviet cause.
However, such a judgment has been vigorously contested. Ben Kiernan’s essay, ‘The Making of a Myth: Wilfred Burchett and the KGB,’ in Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983 (London: Quartet, 1986), is an early example. Burchett’s foremost defender remains Tom Heenan, whose From Traveller to Traitor: The Life of Wilfred Burchett (Melbourne: MUP, 2006), ‘Robert Manne’s Wilfred Burchett: The uses and abuses of biography’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 56:2 (2010), pp. 208-24, ADB entry and online contributions consistently argue that Burchett was neither a communist nor an agent.
The point of revisiting this literature is that the personal recollection published below, gives an entirely different perspective. It was written by Rupert Lockwood (1908-1997), one of Australia’s best-known Cold War communists. He lived in Burchett’s apartment during the three years in the 1960s when he was the Moscow correspondent for Tribune, the Communist Party’s weekly paper.
The recollection, provided by Penny Lockwood for publication in Recorder, reveals that Burchett’s relationship with the KGB, and more generally with Soviet officialdom, was highly fractious; by 1965 he was persona non grata. This has been overlooked by both detractor and supporter.
‘I Got Out by the Skin of My Teeth’: Wilfred Burchett’s retreat from Moscow
By Rupert Lockwood
Wilfred Burchett’s farewell to Moscow in his 9th floor apartment in the Vissotni Dom, one of Stalin’s ‘wedding cake’ buildings in the shadow of the Kremlin and at the confluence of the Moskva and Yauza Rivers, was the most stressful party I had ever attended. Host Wilfred dialed busily on his tapped phone, dashed in and out, returning occasionally in a futile effort to entertain his guests. The first autumn chills of September 1965 could not keep the sweat from his brow.
Wilfred, his Bulgarian wife Vessa, and their young children, all born under Communist regimes, were due to catch an Aeroflot plane from Moscow early next morning for Cairo, there to connect with a Czechoslovak Airlines flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. AVIR, the Moscow visa office, KGB supervised, was refusing to stamp Burchett’s family passports with exit visa permits.
Intourist, the Soviet travel monopoly, had already visited upon him that tanglefooted bureaucratic treatment in which Russians are amongst world leaders. Intourist had ruled that Burchett, born in Melbourne, could pay the air fare in roubles, but that wife Vessa, born in East Europe, and children, born in Beijing and Hanoi, must pay in US dollars.
Although he earned foreign currency royalties for his books and articles, Burchett was hard-pressed to rustle up the dollars (he suffered no shortage of roubles). He had sold his British-made station wagon and other items, got transfers of dollars from a bank abroad, and surprised Intourist by meeting its demands. This put AVIR in a difficult position.
Burchett had picked up tickets to Cairo and Phnom Penh that day. An Intourist official told him in frozen tones: ‘It’s no use you expecting a seat at Cairo for Phnom Penh. All the planes are booked out for months.’ That did not deter Wilfred – he was experienced in overcoming difficult travel problems and he knew he must leave Moscow.
During the party he rang influential friends and then rushed to the home of a Foreign Office official, and to an AVIR contact. He was back at the Vissotni Dom party at about 10.30pm, still without an exit visa. It was just after 11pm that the fateful phone call drew a strained host away once more from his guests. Those green-helmeted guards would have the exit visas for him at Sheremetyevo airport before the Aeroflot flight to Cairo the next morning. Wilfred’s guests gave him an ironic cheer. They included writers, actors, scientists, university professors and Foreign Office officials prepared to take the risk. They knew Wilfred was being ‘unpersonned’.
Whatever had Wilfred done to incur Soviet wrath? The Stalin witch-hunters would have found nothing to criticize in his writings on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
His book, The People’s Democracies, was one of the most outrageous historical distortions in a field where competition was severe. The carefully detailed conspiracy web in which Hungarian Foreign Minister Lazlo Rajk and Yugoslavia’s Tito were alleged to be key operatives, as faithfully portrayed by Wilfred in his report on the Budapest trial, demoted John Le Carre and Ian Fleming to Boys’ Own Paper class. Rajk, he related, ‘worked all over Europe as a police spy – for Yugoslav, British and Franco Spanish Intelligence, for the Gestapo and the CIA’. Rajk in fact fought in the Spanish Civil War International Brigade and was gaoled several times by Hungarian dictator Horthy’s police, the last time in 1944-45.
Wilfred Burchett was also in the Sofia court in December 1949 to hear charges against Bulgarian Deputy Premier Traicho Kostov, a man of intellect and courage. Kostov stood up to arrogant Soviet representatives. He objected to paying low prices for Bulgarian produce and selling it abroad at handsome profit. ‘Bargaining with the Soviet Union’ was ‘nationalist deviation’.
On the evidence Burchett saw Kostov as a collaborator in a ‘Yugoslav plan every whit as diabolical and bloodthirsty as that for Hungary.’ Wilfred Burchett did note that Kostov in court repudiated the ‘confession’ (later shown to be extracted under torture). He was taken away for a few hours, ‘re-confessed’ and was speedily hanged.
Wilfred Burchett at least tried to make amends for his acceptance of Stalinist falsities. He made special trips to Hungary and Bulgaria to apologise to the widow Rajk and the relatives of Kostov. This may have been far short of just reparation, but it was at least more than the Soviet ‘teachers’ who supervised the East European police were prepared to do.
Burchett was, in fact, already under suspicion at KGB or NKVD headquarters, and these suspicions were being whispered around before his apologies, which drew no Soviet plaudits at the time. As the second wave of the Great Terror under Brezhnev cramped and destroyed lives from Kamchatka to the Elbe, Wilfred obviously began to have doubts. Being an outgoing journalist, he talked about them and was no doubt informed upon.
Even in the 1950s journalists employed by the Tass news-agency in London warned me that ‘Czech Intelligence’ had listed Wilfred Burchett as ‘an American agent’. Soon after, the same warning came to my ears from some of the shady group then staffing the Czechoslovak Foreign Office in Prague. In Sofia, a Greek Communist refugee from the failed Leftist rebellion in Greece sympathised with me for having an Australian colleague, Wilfred Burchett, who ‘was spying for the Americans’. The Greek Communist was certain Burchett was ‘seriously implicated’. Who would have told him?
Later I mentioned these absurd charges to Burchett. He already knew about the tales being circulated, and offered one consoling thought: ‘If I’d been working for the Americans you can be sure I would have been caught long ago. The Americans are not very good at protecting their agents!’ Wilfred forgot to say: one did not have to be ‘caught’. Slanderous denunciations were usually followed by arrests and ‘confessions’.
Wilfred, with good reason, began to spend more time in China after the success of Mao Tse-tung’s October 1949 Revolution. He wrote enthusiastically and copiously on post-revolutionary China. After the Korean war outbreak in 1950, he was busily engaged as a defender of North Korea. Next, his name was in the headlines for his reportage in the Vietnam conflict.
I met and talked with Wilfred Burchett in Moscow in 1961, during the Khrushchev era. He was not very impressed with Khrushchev. When Marshal Vorishilov, wartime defender of Leningrad, turned up to take his place on the rostrum in Red Square for the November 7 anniversary, Khrushchev had him shunted off as a Stalin collaborator. Burchett thought this was pretty lousy, as Khrushchev himself had been an ardent Stalinist until the dictator’s death.
Wilfred did not hesitate to express his criticisms of Stalin’s faithful servants who tried to blame all on the dictator and ‘the cult of the individual’, and neglected to apologise for their own complicity.
Marriage may have provided another entry in Burchett’s KGB dossier. Vessa worked in the Bulgarian Foreign Office, then little more than an annexe of the Soviet Foreign Office. A notice appeared on the office board, denouncing Vessa for ideological deviations and faulty work. In those hair-trigger days the pasted-up denunciation could have led to a sentence to a ‘strict regime’ labour camp. She was quickly in touch with Wilfred. He made firm representations to surviving contacts in Sofia and Moscow. His pleas – and marriage to Vessa – saved her.
They both moved into the Vissotni Dom apartment on the Moscow River embankment, apartment 25, Kotenicheskaya Naberezhnaya. It was no ‘luxury KGB flat’ as some of Burchett’s denigrators charged. The Foreign Office Press Department controlled it, as other foreign correspondents’ flats, and the Diplomatic Supply Service (UPDK), a corrupt body, serviced it. Luxurious it was, but not a KGB apartment. Floor space was enough to house a dozen or more Soviet citizens – lounge, work study, three bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and back landing storage area.
The Lockwood family arrived in Moscow in April 1965, settling into an apartment on Prospekt Mira. I was to be Moscow correspondent for the Communist Tribune for three years, and the third Australian in that post. The first, Rex Chiplin, got off the plane at Kingsford Smith Airport, took a taxi to the Communist Party headquarters then in Market Street, Sydney, and shouted at a Central Committee functionary, as he flung his party membership card down on the table, ‘If that’s socialism, you can shove it up your arse!’
Contact was established with the Burchetts at the first press conference I attended in East Berlin. Vessa was there to represent Bulgarian papers. The conference was for the twentieth anniversary of the Red Army’s capture of Berlin. The two Red Army soldiers seen in an historic photo climbing the ruined Reichstag dome to plant the Soviet flag were the stars of the conference.
Through Vessa I made contact with Wilfred, whom I had known in Australia. I visited his apartment often. My wife and daughters got to know him. When they heard that Wilfred was leaving Moscow for Cambodia, they promptly put the word on him to allow us to move into his Vissotni Dom apartment when he vacated.
Inside the apartment were Wilfred and Vessa’s abandoned possessions. They could not take them to Cambodia in their hasty retreat. Consigned to our care were the Burchett’s accumulations of Chinese and Vietnamese furniture and artifacts, a valuable library, TV and radio, warm Mongolian blankets, and stocks of food and condiments that Vessa had purchased abroad with their foreign currency earnings.
The greatest joy on entering the Burchett apartment was a view I thought was without equal in the world. The scene outside of the Moscow River and the Kremlin was so distractingly enchanting that I often could not do much work. I used to sit and stare at this peerless panorama from the Burchett balcony. Why ever would Wilfred swap all this for a modest pad in Phnom Penh?
Here in this fabulous setting Wilfred Burchett and family seemed to have been comfortably settled for life. He could converse with both Soviet and visiting academics, writers, artists, statesmen, and visiting VIPs. He could mix with varied nationalities: he spoke Russian, French and German fluently, could get around in Vietnamese and had smatterings of Chinese and East European languages. Why then was he so desperate to get exit permits to catch that Aeroflot flight from Sheremetyvo airport and look down on Moscow for the last time. In Sydney, when he came for his ill-fated libel case hearing, he told me: ‘I got out of Moscow by the skin of my teeth’.
Burchett’s deviations from Moscow-sanctioned conduct were manifold. He refused to go along with the Soviet’s anti-Chinese line: he had deep affection for the Chinese people and their culture. The Vietnamese were using him as a kind of international diplomatic spokesman – a role that brought him an invitation to breakfast with US State Secretary Henry Kissinger, who delivered to Burchett, as if he were a Vietnamese ambassador, instructions and threats to be passed on to ‘your friends in Hanoi’. The Russians began to regard Burchett, the Australian journalist, as some kind of usurper in the international diplomatic field.
Burchett was also too close to Prince Sihanouk and the Cambodians. Western correspondents in Moscow admitted to me that the Cambodian Embassy in Moscow had been leaking information to them about this.
Soviet spite and displeasure were evident after Burchett’s final departure. Any mention of Wilfred’s achievements and vast store of knowledge of world affairs brought stony stares from Soviet officials. American correspondents visiting Moscow, unaware of Wilfred’s exit, kept ringing on the tapped phone in the Vissotni Dom apartment. Burchett was held in great respect by many international journalists. These contacts with Western journalists would have added a few pages in indelible ink to the file in the KGB’s Lubianka headquarters on Dzerzhinsky Square.
In 1967 Wilfred Burchett was invited to speak and show his latest Vietnam film to a conference of the International Organisation of Journalists, a Soviet-endorsed body, in East Berlin. Wilfred duly made the long and difficult journey from Vietnam to the East Berlin conference, ready with film and prepared speech. I was there as an observer. Wilfred waited, I waited, for the film and speech as the conference days wore on. No speech was made, no film shown. Delegates did not have to ask why. A Soviet veto on Burchett was obeyed by the East German organisers of the conference. Burchett began to look depressed at not being allowed to screen the premiere of his film on the latest fighting, personally shot at the battlefronts and in bombed towns. Alan Winnington, British Communist Morning Star correspondent in East Berlin, had the courage to demand an explanation of the conference organisers. He got none.
While I was thrilling to the view of the river and those gold-leafed domes from the ninth floor balcony of the Vissotni Dom, Wilfred Burchett and family were landing from an Aeroflot flight in the heat and desert dust of Cairo airport, and without delay on to Phnom Penh. Thanks to Prince Sihanouk’s help, Wilfred and family moved into their new accommodation in Phnom Penh, a handy base for forays into Vietnam battle zones.
Wilfred and Vessa found no peace in Cambodia, which US leaders had started to bomb into the stone age. The CIA organised the overthrow by the Lon Nol US puppets of the legitimate Prince Sihanouk, thus opening the gates to the Khmer Rouge. Burchett at least made it clear that this was a mistake. Unlike those in the West, he was no Khmer Rouge supporter.
He could just muster enough foreign currency to move to Paris.
At that stage it seems that he had nowhere to go in the Communist world: East Germany’s acceptance of the Soviet veto on Burchett at the International Journalists’ Conference would have served notice that he was persona non grata in Moscow. By 1972 he was declared persona non grata in Bulgaria – he had been denounced as a British spy. And to add to this a mountain of legal costs stood against his name after his disastrous libel suit in Australia. Although the accusations against him were rejected as slanderous by a NSW court in 1973, and charges against him could not be sustained, that did not yield him damages.
Burchett’s health was failing. He died in his wife’s home city, Sofia, in 1983, suffering fragility and perhaps bitterness. Perhaps as the years pass and documents are dusted off, Burchett will, like so many of his generation, be rehabilitated long after he was consigned to a distant grave.
[Note: this recollection, which was provided by the author’s daughter, Penny Lockwood, has been edited by Recorder. A fuller version can be found on the Radical Sydney/Radical History website hosted by Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving. Rowan has just completed his doctorate on Rupert Lockwood: http://radicalsydney.blogspot.com.au/p/wilred-burchetts-tretreat-from-moscow.html]