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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 50 New Delhi December 5, 2015

A Delicate Shade of Pink

Sunday 6 December 2015, by Dipak Malik


A Delicate Shade of Pink: The Lives of Hella Wuolijoki and Salme Dutt in the Service of Revolution by Erkki Tuomioja; Wisdom Tree: New Delhi; 2013; pages: Xiv+375.

A Delicate Shade of Pink by Erkki Tuomioja is a story from a distant corner of Scandinavia mapping Finland, Estonia and Sweden. The author of the book is currently the Foreign Minister of Finland having vast international experience. He is a votary of the Nordic welfare state and believes that the Nordic variety of welfare state can survive and has managed well even in the era of globalisation.

This book is a biographical account of Erkki Tuomioja’s grandmother, Hella Wuolijoki, who was one of the major mediating figures in Finnish politics when the country was trying to wrest its freedom as well as chart out a socialist trajectory in polity. The book is a rich narrative, which portrays an unstable territory oscillating between the newly emerging creed of nationalism and the kaleidoscopic world of varying shades of socialism in the early decades of the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, the pink is a spill-over from the massive events that followed the giant neighbour, Russia, where the old power structure was being overthrown by rugged revolutionaries. The story of the two sisters originally from Estonia who took citizenship of Finland portrays a vast canvas of an enormous change going on the next door as well as in the world of fashionable salons and discussions around, conspiracies and business deals even involving the Bolsheviks. It indeed is a vivid portrayal of colourful lives and equally momentous events in the early twenties in Finland and Scandinavia.

The story gets connected to India as Salme, a committed and focussed young woman, a witness to the failed revolution of Russia in 1905, who thereafter had temporary stay in the cities of Moscow and Irkutsk in Siberia. Salme Murrik, who was to become later on Salme Dutt, has a fascinating connection with India and British Communists through her marriage to Rajani Palme Dutt, one of the veteran British Communist leaders and a much sought after ideologue, particularly amongst the Third World would-be leaders who gathered in London in the 1940s and 1950s. Salme became a conscience-keeper and back-room adviser to Rajani in critical periods of their long political life. She is remembered in the blurred memories of contemporaries as the author of the poetry collection Lucifer and Other Poems as well as a philosopher. The book under review provides an insight into the tectonic changes that were taking place in the surroundings of the two sisters. This was the time which has become part of now forgotten chapters of history. Bolshevik commissars were all around Scandinavia. Even steel-frame characters like Trotsky are made to look very humane and unsure in the portrayal done by Hella Wuolijoki who met and hobnobbed with most of the prominent actors in revolutionary politics during this period.

The world around the first two decades of the twentieth century was interesting as well as challenging as Europe was awakening from its hangover of the past centuries shadowed and dominated by a tottering feudalism, a feeble republicanism, baby steps in the recently acquired democracy and multi-coloured vision of equality subsumed in the ideological stream of the various shades of socialism starting from Fabian, Utopian, Social Democratic to Scientific Socialism. It was still a new world system in the making where life, civil society, philosophical moorings all were in flux.

Nationalism was quite new and fresh, still struggling to assert its identity and in the process of acquiring legitimacy in midst of the heavy-handed deals of classical empires and colonial powers. The biases, prejudices and misconceptions were flowing high. This was the greening of Europe as well as the move towards the foundation of nationalism wrested from feudal dominance.

Both the Murrik sisters were deeply entrenched into this big picture of turmoil, change and battle for more freedom and the deeper rhythms of humanism. This was an era when poetry was a natural corollary of the adventure for egalitarian society. Hella Wuolijoki incidentally had a big career in business but took an equally big foray in the world of revolution as well as literature. Her salon was agog with people like George Lansbury and John Reed, the American journalist who wrote the book Ten Days That Shook the World based on his eye-witness account of the October Revolution in Russia. Wide-eyed, they were all watchers of the recently transformed world of nascent Soviet Union. The future party leader of the Labour Party of Britan, Lansbury, welcomed the hospitality that his good friend, Hella Wuolijoki, had offered to many who had travelled through Helsinki to Russia. As a facilitator Hella even organised for Lansbury a journey to Moscow by arranging, albeit with the help of the Finnish Government, an icebreaker across the ice-bound Gulf of Finland to Tallin.

It is interesting to read about the fluid situation, which gets reflected from the goings-on in the salon of Hella Wuolijoki. Tuomioja writes: ‘At the time, not all who supported Lenin were necessarily Communists, as other Left parties and groups, such as Social-Revolutionaries, Anarchists and Mensheviks, were initially tolerated in Soviet Russia.’ (p. 107) The charm of the salon even captured the British Naval Captain, Augustus Agar, who was actually from the British intelligence service. But all this was hardly helpful when Wuolijoki’s visa application to Britain was finally rejected by the then War Secretary, Winston Churchill. He commented at the margin of her application that he strongly opposed the issue of passport to this lady. This happened much before the Fulton Speech of Churchill when he finally discovered the Soviet Union draped under the iron curtain and all the intransigence born out of that. At hindsight it seems it was no less than a colonial-imperial curtain, so assiduosly cultivated by the conser-vatives like Churchill, that ultimately pressurised a fluid scenario in Moscow and Petrograd to turn into a defensive posture. It was obviously this intransigence as well as conspiratorial venture by the West to strangle the new experiment in the Soviet Union, which in its initial run had a prospect of presenting world with a humane-faced Socialism, that changed the latter’s course. This blind attack led to the latter-day version of statism, Stalinism and complete distortions of an unprecedented revolution. This explains why the euphoria for the early Soviet Union died down so quickly after the entry of Stalin.

While Hella Wuolijoki made tete-a-tete with visitors from all parts of Europe and America, she remained firmly with the Entente with complete indifference towards German overtures. This made her equally sought-after by the socialists as well as non-socialist nationalists, though detective reports reveal that she was the most enviable organiser of the countrywide Left Socialists. It however remained always an enigma as to where to put Hella Wuolijoki: in red, scarlet or pink. But she must be given credit to build a new type of relationship with the new regime of the Soviet Union, which eventually helped Finland to gain independence after the Bolshevik Revolution. She was again very much in demand in the 1930s because of her close connection with the Soviet Union ant its ruling clique. She equally served the cause of Finland and the Baltic states like Estonia in a period of tussle between an emerging Nazi Germany and a wary Soviet Union in spite of the fact that the small Baltic countries were compelled to play gallery to a bellicose Germany in those uncertain times.

The story of Finland’s struggle for freedom has certain interesting twists and turns. The beginning of the First World War brought hope to Finnish nationalists as well as socialists to wrest their freedom from the colonial rule of the Russian Empire. The war came as an opportunity for breaking out of the bondage; this was indeed a Leninist strategy, though with the beginning of the war some Finnish nationalists promptly established contact with Imperial Germany too. Hella Wuolijoki, however, did not endorse the idea of gaining independence for Finland with the help of Germans. She was firmly with the Entente but to their surprise, they saw the historic Bolshevik coup coming to Russia which instantly enhanced the chances of full independence for Finland. It was rather ironical that Finland was granted full sovereignty by the newly constituted Soviet Government in response to the demand presented by a Rightwing Government in Finland. It is a matter of guess why Lenin granted full independence to Finland. Was it because of the Soviet Government’s new Constitution guaranteeing the right of self-determinism to republics and colonies under the former Empire or to facilitate the Social Democrats to come to power? Anyway, it was a welcome step; it created a bond and a status of buffer state for Finland in those days of boycott of the Soviet Union. The cordon sanitaire broke, though temporarily, during the Second World War when the West was compelled for a coalition with the Soviet Union.

The two sisters’ closeness to Left politics in spite of forays of Hella into the world of business does not surprise one as the battle for independence and independent nationhood both demanded a wide coalition of forces from the Left to the Centre and even the Right. Besides, Russia during the war and later on as the Soviet Union had only Finland, as part of the Western world where they did not actually face any ostracisation of the sort exercised by the West. In fact Finland has a very special story to tell; here the battle of nationalism was entwined with battle for a wide notion of socialism. Due to massive events overtaking the neighbouring Soviet Union, nationalism and socialism got blended and the lines between Social Democrats and Communists became blurred. Besides, the new Soviet leadership with Lenin in saddle was willing to play the role of an honest broker between various shades of Left presence in Finland.

The portrayal of Salme Dutt and Rajani Palme Dutt reveals many sides of international communism. In spite of the fact that Rajani Palme Dutt continuing as the chief ideologue of the Communist Party of Great Britain, his relationship and impact on the colonial world’s emerging figures including the major Indian leaders, both of the Congress Party and Communist Party, was more than substantial. He may have had a peripheral role to play in British political life but his role in the colonial world remains none too insignificant. As a matter of fact his book India Today attracted a large clientale in India both from the Left as well as outside the Left. He counselled the CPI to forge a coalition with the Congress Party. This came from his classical Marxist under-standing extrapolating various stages of revolutionary changes as well as the various theories and debates that hovered over at that time. This, however, in spite of his unquestioned adherence to the international line was not in consonance with Moscow’s view of Third World developments. Though many new facts are coming out now which bear that Moscow, particularly Stalin himself, had questioned the futile insurrectionist line of the Indian Comm-unists. Rajani Palme Dutt’s visit to India in March 1946 was a landmark with a sense of a prodigal son back at home for a sage counsel to his people. The line proposed by Rajani Palme Dutt got big endorsement by P.C. Joshi, the most articulate and innovative amongst the pantheon of Communist leaders of India.

Rajani Palme Dutt edited the LabourMonthly, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is not surprising to see Salme contributing to the journal mostly writing on philosophical issues. Her literary side is easily explainable as a family trait as Hella, along with becoming an active go-between in the international communist movement and the Finnish Communists and Socialists combining with a foray into big business in Finland, she was also a prolific writer of plays so much so as to get acclamation from Bertold Brecht. Salme Dutt’s earlier mentioned anthology of poems was published very late in 1966 after her death. We cannot underestimate the role of Salme Dutt representing the Comintern in the UK and helping in the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain in her initial years in the UK.

Rajani Palme Dutt’s active years were that of severe Cold War. Though he is considered a devout orthodox Communist who unequivocally toed the Moscow line, and like many of his generation was unable to stomach Khruschhev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, so was the case with the Indian communist movement too.

Rajani Palme Dutt in his own world, as one of the foremost guides and advisors to the Third World movements and leaders, had to move away further from the Stalinist positions, as is obvious by his advice given to the Indian Communists to forge alliance with Jawaharlal Nehru. Tuomioja’s book reveals many chapters of the hitherto unknown history of a transition period in the neighbourhood of the Goliath of an emerging Soviet Union of the twenties. At hindsight it seems it would have been better if the Soviets had taken notice of the new discourse of broad coalitions emerging in the developing world scenario. Alas, the Soviets did not want to take any lesson in terms of how an open society too can work for change.

Hella’s life shows many colours of political, social and literary life in Finland. However, Salme Dutt’s sombre life and her shadow behind her husband, Rajani, kept him on rails with the world of the global communist movement. She remained a devout follower of this movement under the leadership of the CPSU till the end of her life. To some extent she strikes as a Russophile as portrayed but, of course, with a delicate shade of pink.

Prof Dipak Malik is the Director Emeritus, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi.