General Articles

They Taught Me Treason

It took Communism, Russian style, to cure a Communist. Here’s Hladun’s own story of his reconversion to freedom

JOHN HLADUN November 1 1947
General Articles

They Taught Me Treason

It took Communism, Russian style, to cure a Communist. Here’s Hladun’s own story of his reconversion to freedom

JOHN HLADUN November 1 1947

They Taught Me Treason



It took Communism, Russian style, to cure a Communist. Here’s Hladun’s own story of his reconversion to freedom

MY SEVEN years in the Communist Party of Canada were filled with paradoxes. The most staggering paradox of all lay in the manner of my retreat from Communism. My retreat began in Moscow—where, traditionally, good Communists go to make themselves better Communists.

My first serious doubts about Communism were implanted in the classrooms of the International IÆnin University, to which I was summoned along with 6,000 other young Communists from all over the world for the nine-months’ term of 1931-32. I’ve already told how, while I was learning to carry arms against my own government in support of the golden doctrine of Communism, I was also learning that this doctrine had little connection with reality in the first Communist state. I’ve told how, by progressive and uneasy stages, I discovered that Russia, the sworn enemy of capitalism, was itself a capitalist state; that workers in the workers’ paradise didn’t own the goods they produced or very much of the goods anyone else produced; that freedom in the land of the free meant only freedom to conform.

Even these classroom disillusionments, dismaying though they were, had nothing like the impact of the disillusionments to which I was exposed outside the university. As a Ukrainian-Canadian, I spoke Russian well. I got around Moscow a lot and made three long trips outside the city.

Once I was appointed to act as special interpreter to a delegation from Great Britain which had come to see the lumber camps on the Moscow-Archangel railway. Britain was buying enormous quantities of lumber from Russia at the time and British “reactionaries” had protested that most of the lumber was being produced by slave labor. The Soviet Government arranged for a British deputation to “inspect” the camps. I was attached to it in Moscow. I cannot recall the names of the delegates, nor was I able to find out whether it represented the British Government.

Life in the Slave Camps

THE “inspection” was in charge of the GPU, the Russian state police organization. Before our departure, a GPU official gave me clear and explicit instructions on how and what I was to interpret. The inmates of the camps, he explained first, were political prisoners and as such they were our class enemies. If I heard any of them complain — either among themselves or in the presence of the British delegation-—I should at once report them to lhe GPU officer who would accompany the party along with an official of the Comintern. When interpreting I must phrase the questions and answers so as to give the impression that the inmates of the camps were happy and well cared for, above all that they acknowledged their guilt and were eager to expiate it by serving out their sentences. To the inmates I must give the impression that the British delegates were sympathizers of the Communist Party and had come not to investigate alleged injustices but to find out how to build an efficient socialist state.

At the first camp, our special railway coach was shunted to a siding. The camp was a huge settlement of wooden barracks and long huts enclosed in barbed wire. We spent nearly two hours talking to the officials of the camp and were shown a set of records which indicated that the minimum monthly pay for the lumber workers was 140 rubles. Later I learned that another set of books showed deductions for board, lodging, clothing and miscellaneous services—and that deductions and wages

always came out even. The delegates didn’t see this second set of books.

We inspected the food, which, though poor, was no worse than that served in any factory cafeteria in Moscow. The floors and bunks of the sleeping barracks were of corduroy logs and there were few windows, but. otherwise the lodgings seemed comfortable enough. We saw no blankets or other bedding.

After lunch we talked to the inmates for about an hour. My job of interpreting was simple; it was apparent that the inmates had been at least as well briefed as I’d been. After a round of stilted pleasantries between the delegation and the prisoners I told the GPU official I wanted to browse around by myself to see if I could unearth any dangerous malcontents.

The first couple of inmates I met under these new conditions were extremely guarded at first, but. after I’d convinced them that I was a Canadian and had no direct connection with the GPU, they opened up a little.

“Where are you from?” I asked an elderly man.

“From Cherkassy in the Ukraine. They picked me up, tortured me in Kiev, and finally sent me here.”

“What for?” I asked.

“They said I was a kulak, but I am not. When

will they let us out? I hope my family is well.” He started to cry.

“Can’t he write to his family?” I asked a bystander.

“We are not allowed to write or receive letters. What is happening in the world now? Is there any hope of our get ting home?”

“I don’t know,” I said. Then I excused myselt hastily, saying that I could not talk long to any one group.

I mingled with several other groups and discovered one more interesting thing. None of the prisoners had had a public trial. They had been sentenced to penal servitude by the Collegium ot the State Police, which usually consisted of three police officials.

We visited six camps altogether. The other inspections were repetitions of the first one, although there were women and children in a few of the camps. Altogether I saw tens of thousands ot Russia’s best, artisans and farmers simply thrown out of existence, doomed to toil their lives away in slavery to support the new economy of freedom.

I played a good deal of poker on the trip with our GPU supervisor. I won a fair amount of money from him and one night near the end of the journey, I loaned him back a hundred

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rubles. Then I asked him absentmindedly how many labor camps there were in all of Russia.

He shrugged: “Five hundred? Two thousand?”

How many workers? He replied as before: “Ten million? Fifteen million?”

Russia’s Wandering Boys

Coming home one night by streetcar from the university to my dormitory, I heard a woman scream. The streetcar stopped abruptly as someone shouted that a bezprizorny had stolen a purse. I’d heard a good deal about the bezprizorny—the famous wandering waifs of Russia—and when several of the male passengers piled out the rear exit of the car and began running down a side street, I ran after them. We finally cornered a ragged dirty wildeyed child who scratched, kicked, bit and cursed at us with shrill ferocity. We started looking around for a city militiaman but none was in sight. I told the crowd that there was a militia station near my way home and offered to turn the youngster in on the way.

I tried to talk to him but at first all I got was a torrent of oaths. But as we drew nearer to the station, he began to wheedle. Gradually I extracted a little information.

His name was Alosha. He didn’t know how old he was. He’d been born in the Caucasus and had come to Moscow with a band of bezprizorny during the general spring migration to the north.

“Where are your parents?” 1 asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said matter-offactiy. “They took them away.”

He told me how he lived—by begging and stealing whatever he needed. The proceeds were shared impartially with other members of his band.

We were just around the corner from the station now and I told the boy he could go. “Oh no,” he said, “I always sleep in the station. So long as nobody makes a complaint against me, they leave me alone.”

The militiamen knew him. The place was already filled with others like him. One of the militiamen told me the bezprizorny problem had reached such vast proportions that the authorities no longer even tried to cope with it.

Around the first of May, we had a 10-day, mid-term recess. We were to spend this time outside Moscow doing propaganda work for MOPR (the International Organization for Red Assistance of which the Canadian Labor Defense League was a part). At the office of MOPR I was shown a list of routes to choose from. I decided to go to Kryvorizha in the Ukraine. It would be my first chance to see the land where my parents had been born. 1 asked particularly to be allowed to visit “Commune Chilborob,” an agricultural commune that had been established a few years before by a group of well-to-do Canadian Communists from Lethbridge, Alta.

The Pro-Capitalist Tartar

These Ukrainian-Canadians had sold their belongings in Canada to return to their fatherland and share in the benefits of Soviet socialism. On their arrival they had been allotted a large tract of land.

Within six months of its formation, the Canadian Commune had begun to distintegrate. Many of its members who still held Canadian passports returned to Canada: others fled to various countries of Europe. I had

heard something of this before I left Canada and a little more in Moscow, but the real story was still a mystery.

I had the privilege of travelling without the usual GPU escort. I spent practically the whole journey talking with an elderly Tartar from the Crimea, a professional actor who impressed me from the first as a highly intelligent man. There was the customary two or three hours of sparring—a necessary preliminary, as I’d discovered many times before, to any frank conversation between strangers in Russia—but at last the old man decided he could trust me.

The result was one of the strangest arguments I’ve ever had. On one side was I, citizen of capitalist Canada, singing the praises of Communist Russia; on the other side was he, citizen of Communist Russia, singing the praises of capitalist Canada.

“What about capital’s exploitation of labor?” I’d ask him.

“Ah, yes,” he’d say, and then remind me gently that in the capitalist countries, the owners of an enterprise at least can be no more than human beings. They can’t quite be gods. True, he’d admit, the capitalist entrepreneur eats better, dresses better, lives better generally than the average worker. But was it a mistake to say that the organizers and managers create no values? If a country’s real wealth is measured by the goods it creates and distributes to the masses, what Russian ever created a tenth as much real wealth as the archcapitalist, Henry Ford?

In Russia, the old man went on, the state is the employer of all labor. It is a huge monopoly, so complete that the exploiting class, the Communists, is entirely free from the labor troubles that are a constant headache to the capitalist exploiting classes. To run its huge monopoly, the Russian Communist state requires a colossal administrative and punitive apparatus. So vast is this apparatus that it feeds one nonproducer for every five workers and peasants; under capitalism the usual proportion is less than one to 20.

“Think what we spend just to foster revolutionary movements abroad,” he invited me. “Did you ever figure out what it costs us to have you here?”

I had no ready answer for that either.

Canadians in Exile

On the second day of May I arrived at the Canadian Commune near Kryvorizha. For guidance and protection, the local branch of the GPU assigned a plain-clothes man to me. The Commune was staffed with the customary full-time Communist Party officials, which made it impossible for me to have a real talk with the rank and file.

Next morning, however, my GPU guide went fishing with the secretary of the party. I said I didn’t like fishing and stayed behind to help the Communards make one of their periodic chicks of their agricultural implements.

Practically all of the implements were in disrepair. They were of many makes and it was impossible to interchange their parts. Of six tractors only one was in working order. The Communards made it plain to me that ruined machinery was only an insignificant fragment of a much larger and more bitter tragedy—the tragedy of ruined lives. They made their regret at having left Canada pathetically plain. They begged me to warn their friends back in Canada against believing anything they might hear or read about the blessings of state socialism in general and the resurrection of the Ukraine in particular.

When the course at Lenin University

ended it was announced that each student might take a month’s vacation before returning to his native country. During this month he could go anywhere and see anything he wished— military establishments excepted. The Comintern gave us each 200 rubles extra for travelling expenses and board and lodging en route.

Thanks to the clothing and other personal possessions I’d sold on the black market, I had about 2,000 rubles in cash and was one of the few students able to accept the travel offer. I felt I’d like to see more of the Ukraine, and mapped out a route that started at Tchernihiw, then by boat to Kiev, down the Dnieper to Dnepropetrovsk and finished at Odessa.

Fiasco at Nikopol

Almost everywhere I stopped I purposely neglected to make the usual courtesy call on the local party organization. But at Nikopol, a town in the manganese mine fields, I did drop in on the party—to my subsequent regret.

The party committee received me warmly. I was just the man they were looking for. The output of the local mine was dropping; it would be very helpful if I’d address a meeting of the miners. Naturally, it was impossible to refuse.

There were about 1,500 miners at the meeting. I was introduced as a Communist representing Canadian farmers and workers, and carrying a message about the capitalist depression.

I harangued them earnestly for an hour. I sen.sed at once that they were a singularly unresponsive audience. Perhaps that was why, when my speech was over, the chairman asked if there were any questions. This was the first meeting I’d addressed in Russia it which the floor was opened for questions.

At once a man near the front asked:

“You said there are huge numbers of unemployed in Canada. How do they live, or do they die of starvation?”

“No, they do not die. They subsist on the dole, on government relief.”

“What do they get?”

“Each member of the family gets only five dollars a week for groceries, one dollar for meat. In addition, their rent, light and water are supplied by the state.”

“What is the price of a pound loaf of bread?” someone asked.

“Five cents.”

“How much is white bread?”

“That is the price of the white bread,” I replied.

There followed a large number of questions about prices of other staple commodities. I was asked to translate dollars and cents into rubles and kopecks.

Then one worker asked: “How much work has to be rendered to the authorities for all these articles and services?”

“No work at all in most cases. It is free. The unemployed lead a parasitic existence.”

An excited shout rose above a swelling mutter of incredulity: “Why do you come here telling us stories about privation and the economic crisis in America? Your workers are living in a paradise. We miners are supposed to be first-class labor, but we do not get half the food that your unemployed get. Do you know what we eat? Cabbage soup! Then more cabbage soup!”

There was a general uproar. Angry accusations were thrown back and forth between the floor and the platform as the chairman tried vainly to bring back order. Finally he had to submerge the hubbub in the singing of the Internationale.

I did a lot of thinking on the last leg of my journey back to Moscow. Suppose my name didn’t happen to be John Hladun. Suppose 1 were Ivan Ivanovich, a worker on a Russian collective farm or in a Russian factory. What would be my lot? How happy would I be? I made a mental inventory ... I would be assigned to a job, according to the Five-Year Plan. I couldn’t quit this job without permission. I couldn’t take a holiday unless and until the plan called for it. I couldn’t travel where I pleased, because travel that didn’t serve the plan was considered wasteful. I couldn’t travel abroad at all. I couldn’t, obtain literature from abroad because it might upset my thinking habits. In return for the sacrifice of my personal freedom, I would receive the barest minimum of creature comforts.

For the first time since I’d begun seriously thinking of joining the party, I found myself making the conscious unreserved admission that being a Canadian had its points.

All right, what now? One thing I knew for sure: I could never again travel the whole wav with the party line as Moscow laid it down. Whatever Moscow said, the end didn't justify the means. But was that to say, necessarily, that I must forsake the end? I still believed that the goal of a classless, socialist society was worth striving for. Couldn’t I, in my humble way, help to restore to the fight the fundamental decency and honor and respect for human rights which I still felt lay behind its original impulse? Why couldn’t I remain a Communist without remaining a tool of Muscovite imperialism? Why couldn’t I befriend the worker without befriending the worker’s enemies? I felt there were sincere idealists among my old party comrades back in Canada. Why couldn’t we, working together from within the Communist Party, make the party what it claimed to be and ought to be—an honest, spokesman for the underdog? It. was worth a try anyway, I decided.

Two weeks later I caught the Bremen at Hamburg. In New York I reported to the offices of the United States Communist. Party and was received by Earl Browder, its secretary, whom I’d met in Moscow a few months earlier. Browder warned me that 1 was going to find t hings hotter at home than they’d been when I left.. Several members of the Central Committee of the Canadian party had been arrested under Sect ion 98 of the Criminal Code, he said, and the Comintern had sent, a couple of trouble shooters to take charge of the party’s affairs in Canada.

Boring Into the Army

In Toronto, I went, directly to the offices of the party, then in a building on Bay Street. When I saw two husky men loitering in the doorway I walked right on. I suspected they were detectives and I was right.

Later that morning I ran into a fellow party member, Oscar Ryan, on the street. Ryan put. me in touch with Tim Buck. Tim was out on bail, and made arrangements to meet me at a boardinghouse on Richmond Street where he suggested I stay for a week or two.

Tim showed up with a couple of strangers. Although they were identified to me only as visiting comrades, I suspected they were the Comintern trouble shooters Browder had spoken of in New York.

Together we mapped out a plan for my immediate future. With the police making free use of Section 98, it was agreed that the party ought to organize a nation-wide system of subterranean communications, and I

was to make a cross-country tour to line up the rough framework. In addition, I was to find out all I could about the military units stationed in the cities along my route. If possible I was to establish contacts with army personnel as well. All the military information I gathered was to be forwarded in code to a special address in Toronto. One of the strangers who accompanied Buck had a couple of identical travel booklets. He gave me one and kept the other himself. We agreed to use a certain page as the key to our code.

I didn’t mind the assignment. It would give me an opportunity to talk to many of my old friends in the party and make a realistic study of the chances of winning any real support for reforms in its methods and objectives.

I stopped at Sudbury, Fort William and Winnipeg and sent Toronto regular reports on the militia and permanent Army units stationed in each place. The reports were cursory—the sort of thing that could be culled from the files of any' newspaper in those relatively peaceful days. The party wanted more meat. It reminded me that I was to establish personal contacts in the Army; if I needed more money for the purpose, the party would supply it.

1 moved on to Calgary without doing anything more. A new order awaited me there. 1 was to discontinue my trip and wait for Stewart Smith. I gathered that Smith was to take over my assignment.

About this time disquieting stories were coming out of Moscow. N. Skrypnik, commissar of education in the Ukraine, committed suicide in protest against the Muscovization of the Ukraine. M. Irchan and D. Sembay, two prominent Ukrainian Communists who had been my instructors at a Communist course in Winnipeg not long before I went to Moscow, had themselves returned to the Ukraine and now the friends they’d left in Canada heard they’d both been liquidated. The news had come to Canada from Sembay’s wife, who had fled to Czechoslovakia.

Buck Squashes A Revolt

These reports came so abruptly and had such a stunning effect on the many Canadian admirers of Irchan and Sembay—both within the party and within the Ukrainian Labor Farmer Temple Association—that the central committee’s hastily contrived “explanation” for once wasn’t acceptable. The Central Committee of the ULFTA, sensing a serious threat to the party’s hold over the ULFTA, sent its head, John Navis, to Moscow to make his own investigation. Navis returned with a vague report which satisfied neither the rank and file nor many of the leaders of the ULFTA. A general conference of the ULFTA was called and, just before the conference began, the ULFTA officials met secretly and decided to make a clean break with the Communist Party. Even Navis, hitherto an unwavering Communist, fell in with this decision.

The whole uprising blew up as abruptly as it began. Tim Buck heard about the impending defection, brought pressure to bear on Navis and one other official of the ULFTA, and the upshot was that the party loyalists triumphed and the rebels were expelled.

Although I’d been sent back to the Head of the Lakes by the time the abortive uprising took place, I’d been in constant touch with the rebel faction. It was agreed that I should stay in the party and strive to promote further—and we hoped, more successful—breaks between the party and

the mass organizations under its control.

A general strike of bush workers at the Head of the Lakes was looming. My instructions were not to worry about what settlement the men got out of the strike, but to concentrate on getting new party members while the strike was in progress.

I ignored these instructions. When the strike was over and I made my report to the district committee of the party, I had enrolled not the 700 new recruits the central committee had set as my objective but a corporal’s guard of eight. I suppose I was already under suspicion for my lackadaisical work in military espionage and for my association with the rebels of the

ULFTA. At. any rate the party gave me an indefinite leave of absence.

That was the last milepost, in my retreat from Communism. It was stupid, I realized at last, to think that compromise was possible. To fight the hypocrisy, the double-dealing, the blind subservience to Russia, the contempt for the individual, the cynical scorn of government by the majority, which I had seen before merely as unfortunate but remediable defects in the party, I now realized that you had to fight the party itself. The party’s evils were not chance flaws that, could be corrected. Its evils were its very root and dynamic.

That day I resigned from the Communist Party of Canada, if