Sam Lesser

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Sam Lesser
Sam-Russell-006.jpg
Born Manassah Lesser or Manasseh Lesser
(1915-03-19)March 19, 1915
Hackney, London
Died October 2, 2010(2010-10-02) (aged 95)
Nationality British
Other names Sam Russell
Ethnicity Jewish
Education South Hackney Central School
George Green School
University College London
Occupation Journalist
Spouse(s) Nell Jones (1943–1950)
Margaret Powell (1950–1990)

Sam Lesser (born Manassah Lesser[1] or Manasseh Lesser[2] and also known as Sam Russell; 19 March 1915 – 2 October 2010) was a British journalist and veteran of the Spanish Civil War's International Brigades. Lesser was one of the last surviving British veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and went on to serve as chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, and write for the Daily Worker and its successor, the Morning Star.[1]

Early life[edit]

Lesser was born Manassah[1] or Manasseh[2] Lesser, the son of Polish immigrants and the eldest of eight children, in the London Borough of Hackney on 19 March 1915.[3] He was raised as a practising Orthodox Jew[1] and attended South Hackney Central School and George Green's School,[3] then won a scholarship to study Egyptology at University College London (UCL) in 1934.[2][4][5] He acknowledged in a 2007 interview that he was already "a bit Bolshevised" by the time he arrived at UCL.[2] In 1935 Lesser joined the Communist Party of Great Britain,[1] a decision he credited to the party's anti-fascist stance;[3] and participated in demonstrations against the British Union of Fascists in London,.[4][6] While at UCL, Lesser also joined the Officers' Training Corps, something he later described as "something that I always have great difficulty explaining,"[6] but which he justified by quoting Vladimir Lenin's maxim "An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves."[2]

Spanish Civil War[edit]

Lesser planned, in July 1936, to embark on an excavation under the supervision of Flinders Petrie.[5] However, at the request of the Communist Party,[1][6] and the specific request of the party's general secretary Harry Pollitt,[2] Lesser was among the first group of 30 British volunteers to depart for Spain in 1936, telling his mother he had gone to Egypt for his studies.[3] He later recalled his having done so as "a gesture of solidarity" having observed the rise of fascism in Europe.[7] It was at this time that he took the name "Sam" and reversed "Lesser" to form "Russell."[3] He travelled to Spain via Paris and Perpignan,[2] took the pseudonym "Raimundo Casado" while crossing the Pyrenees,[4][6] and travelled to the headquarters of the International Brigades in Albacete, where he trained.[4]

His first experience of combat came as part of a British unit in a French battalion in the Casa de Campo university campus in Madrid in October 1936,[5][6] where he defended the faculties of philosophy and literature.[2] Of the original 30 members of Lesser's unit, only six survived until mid-December.[1][4][6] In December 1936, Lesser joined a reconstituted British company and went south to Lopera,[5] where in January 1937 (having previously suffered a shrapnel-inflicted head wound)[3] Lesser was hit by bullets in the back and foot, likely to have come from his own machine gun company,[1][6] and dragged to safety by a friend who insisted on looking for him.[5] "I didn't know at the time where I'd been wounded – in which part of my body – except that when I tried to get up I couldn't. I just fell down," he later recalled.[5]

While recovering, he learned Spanish, was introduced to Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote,[4] and worked in the battalion office in Albacete[7] before returning to Britain with the list of casualties to recuperate.[6] Upon his recovery, Lesser went to Paris, where he worked in the International Brigades recruitment office, assisting in the organisation of newly arrived volunteers and later leading a group of female volunteers to Spain in a fisherman's boat. However, he failed a medical examination and was told that he would be unable to fight, a setback which led to a career in journalism.[4][5]

Journalism[edit]

With no prior experience of journalism,[5] Lesser began producing and broadcasting propaganda radio programmes for the Republican cause.[1][4][6] He was responsible for English language broadcasts at a Barcelona headquarters established to broadcast on shortwave in German, Italian, Portuguese and English.[1][5] He then became a correspondent for the Daily Worker in Barcelona, using "Sam Russell" as his byline[5] and covering the Republicans' retreat at the border town of Figueres.[4] Barcelona was at the time under attack from Benito Mussolini's forces (which had a base in Majorca), who, Lesser wrote, "bombed our area of Barcelona, and I shall never forget the smell there when I went outside. There was one wonderful row of lime trees – a beautiful scent when they're in flower. The gutter was literally flowing with blood, and the smell of the blood of these poor people was mixed with the smell of the lime trees."[5] He left Barcelona the day before the city fell to the Nationalists in January 1939.[1]

Lesser was the Daily Worker's correspondent in Paris and Brussels, leaving Paris after the banning of the Communist Party following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and fleeing Belgium after the Nazi invasion in May 1940.[5] He returned to Britain, where the wounds he had received in Spain prevented him from serving in the British Army. Instead, he worked for four years as an inspector in a Napier & Son aircraft factory in west London, also serving as a shop steward.[3][5]

In 1945, following the lifting of the government's ban on publication of the Daily Worker, he flew in a Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bomber dropping food supplies in the Netherlands.[1][3] Writing for the Daily Worker, Lesser visited Jersey following its occupation, covered the 1952 show trial of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia general secretary Rudolf Slánský, and witnessed Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power. As Moscow correspondent from 1955 until 1959,[3] he became friends spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two of the Cambridge Five, and travelled from Moscow to report on the Soviet invasion following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956,[1] replacing Peter Fryer in Budapest after Fryer resigned in protest at his reports, which supported the rebellion, having been rewritten by the paper.[5] Though Lesser's first despatch from Budapest, headlined "Kadar reveals the facts", was sympathetic to Soviet-installed Prime Minister János Kádár,[5] his attempts to report on the realities of everyday life led the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to request his withdrawal from Moscow, which was refused by the British party.[3] Having been tipped off regarding the content of Khrushchev's report "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences (known as the "Secret Speech") and being aware that a Reuters journalist planned to file the story once outside of Russia, he sought verification from the Soviet Communist Party, arguing that it would be better a sympathetic journalist such as himself to tell the story than for it to be first reported in the capitalist press. He was told, however, that "just because you are a friend doesn't mean you can look in our cupboard."[3] He later said that despite his having filed a 12-page report to his London newsroom, only a few paragraphs appeared in the paper.[5]

As foreign editor, Lesser was based in London but reported from Nigeria, where he covered the 1960 independence celebrations; from Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where he conducted a five-hour-long interview with Che Guevara; from Prague during the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, of which he was critical; and from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.[1][5] Lesser was in Chile during the 1973 coup d'etat, his report of which began "I saw democracy murdered in Chile by a rabble of Rip van Winkle general and admirals recruited by the CIA to impose a savage military dictatorship on a people which had seen and welcomed the dawn of a new era",[1] and reported on the beginnings of a new democracy in Spain following Francisco Franco's death in 1975.[8] During his career with the Daily Worker and Morning Star, Lesser held the positions of home reporter, diplomatic correspondent, Moscow correspondent and foreign editor.[3] He retired in 1984 at the age of 69,[4] but continued contributing articles to Seven Days, the Communist Party's own weekly newspaper.[5]

Personal life[edit]

While in Barcelona, Lesser met Margaret Powell, a nurse.[1][4][6] He married Daily Worker switchboard operator Nell Jones in 1943, but shortly after renewed his acquaintance with Powell. He divorced Jones and married Powell in 1950.[3] Margaret died in 1990. She and Lesser had one daughter, Ruth.[3]

Later life and politics[edit]

Though he initially supported Khrushchev's reforms,[2] he cited his experience surrounding the "Secret Speech" and the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as experiences which changed him politically,[4] and later acknowledged that he was troubled by his own credulity in reporting the Slánský show trial.[5]

In the 1980s, splits developed in the Communist Party and the Morning Star between traditionalists and the dominant Eurocommunists. Lesser, in his capacity as the National Union of Journalists' Father of the Chapel, joined the Eurocommunist wing in opposition to Morning Star editor Tony Chater. The Communist Party was dissolved in 1991, and Lesser joined the Labour Party.[5] Also in the 1990s, Lesser backed the post-Communist Democratic Left organisation.[1] In November 2000, Lesser described himself not as a communist but as a socialist, and acknowledged that some friends considered him a Blairite. He said that having lived in Lambeth, he could "see the terrible, terrible damage that was done to the Labour party by the ultra-left,"[6] and felt that Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, which called for state ownership of industry before its revision in 1995, was outdated.[2]

In 1996 he was among the International Brigade veterans who returned to Spain to be offered honorary Spanish citizenship, an experience he described as "remarkable, really remarkable," and commented "I don't mind admitting I was moved to tears."[6] Lesser was a founding member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, an organisation established in 2001 to educate the public in the history of the International Brigades and remember those who died in the Spanish Civil War, and served as its chair.[1][5]

On 9 June 2009 Lesser was among seven British and Irish volunteers who received Spanish passports and citizenship as a gesture of thanks,[5][8] and gave a speech in fluent Spanish, linking the Spanish Civil War to the fight against the British National Party,[1] who he argued "have the same filthy policy of racism, which started off in Germany with Hitler's campaign against the Jews."[9]

In July 2009 he appeared at the International Brigade memoral in Lambeth's Jubilee Gardens, where he paid tribute to his late friend and fellow brigadier Jack Jones,[10] and on 7 May 2010 he appeared at the unveiling of a plaque honouring the 90 members of the International Brigades killed at the Battle of the Ebro, where he gave a speech in Spanish condemning the lack of support shown to Republican volunteers by representatives of the British government.[11] He also wrote an autobiography, which was never published.[3]

Lesser died in London on 2 October 2010 at the age of 95,[12] leaving instructions for his ashes to be scattered near the International Brigade memorial at Montjuïc in Barcelona.[5]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Bagley, Roger (4 October 2010). "Obituary: Sam Lesser 1915-2010". Morning Star. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Blyth, Gavin (January–June 2007). "A soldier's tale". UCL People (University College London). p. 10. Retrieved 9 October 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Chambers, Colin (11 October 2010). "Sam Russell obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 December 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Rodenas, Angeles (22 July 2006). "Spanish civil war veteran: Sam Lesser". Socialist Worker. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Jump, Jim (1 November 2010). "Sam Lesser: Veteran communist journalist who served with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War". The Independent. Retrieved 22 January 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hattenstone, Simon (10 November 2000). "'Of the original 30, by mid-December only six were left'". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  7. ^ a b Rodgers, Lucy (10 June 2009). "Tales of the last survivors". BBC News. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  8. ^ a b Jones, Sam (8 June 2009). "'It's a terrible thing, civil war, but you've got a job to do'". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  9. ^ Haynes, Deborah (10 June 2009). "British veterans of Spanish Civil War warn over rise of BNP". The Times. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  10. ^ "Brigaders warn against rising fascism in Europe". Morning Star. 6 July 2009. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  11. ^ Fraser, Pauline (16 May 2005). "Lasting reminder". Morning Star. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  12. ^ "Spanish civil war vet passes away". Morning Star. 4 October 2010. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 

External sources[edit]

  • Bishopsgate Foundation - Sam Russell papers: 45 boxes of correspondence, articles, newspaper cuttings, notebooks, publications, reports, photographs and ephemera