Fractions take charge
Q. I want to spend some time on the relationship between the Communist Party and the ULFTA. I don't see it clarified in my mind by reading what Krawchuk has to say about it. In some of the examples, he says: "The Ukrainian Communists had their own section of the Communist Party led by John Navis, which had its own National Bureau, and periodically published a bulletin." Now, this is the Communist Party in its underground phase, before the Workers' Party of Canada came into being. Then he says: "The Workers' Party adopted a Communist platform, decided to unite with the Communist International, and Finnish, Jewish and Ukrainian sections of that party were formed." Now the ULFTA (or the ULTA, as it was at that time) endorsed the Workers' Party and, he says, "in time, the boundary between the work of the Ukrainian section of the Workers' Party and that of the ULTA gradually began to disappear." Then he says, "When, in 1924, the Communist Party began to function as a legal organization, the Ukrainian section of the Workers' Party of Canada was disbanded and its members, most of whom were at the same time members of the ULTA and the WBA, became Pan), members." And then he goes on to say, "At this time, in every locality where a ULFTA and/or WBA branch existed, a Party fraction or caucus was. formed, made up of members of those organizations who were also members of the Party." It's a little confusing. I don't suppose there was an), formal flow chart designed to say, "This shall happen" and "This is the hierarchy." But do you think, because of all of the structures and because most of the players overlapped, that perhaps that itself contributed to the Party's desire to consolidate the situation?
No, I don't think so. It's true that he doesn't make it very clear. The way I understand it happened is that the Ukrainian Party members in the localities met in Ukrainian Party branches for the purpose of discussing Party business. Those Ukrainian Party members who were also members of the ULFTA (which would be most of them) met as a Ukrainian fraction to discuss their work in the ULFTA. At that time Party members were still a minority in the ULFTA branches. So you'd have a situation, for an example, where in a medium-size branch of, say, 30 members, six would belong to the Party. Those six would meet periodically as a Party branch to discuss Party business, such as raising funds for The Worker or distributing Party leaflets, but they would also meet as a fraction to discuss some of the things that should be done in the ULFTA. Then, of course, they would have a ULFTA branch meeting, where they would meet together with the other members.
Wearing three hats
It did get confusing at times, because two or three leading members in a branch would often be wearing two or three hats: their Party hat, their fraction hat, and their ULFTA hat. And I'm sure that to some of the non-Party people it not only was confusing but must have appeared somewhat bizarre.
But this is also why Ukrainian Party members felt that they were carrying a double burden. One could argue that this had its positive side in that it actively drew many ULFTA members into such Party activity as building unions, supporting strikes, etc. But it also, as I said earlier, had a negative side in that the Party members spent less time bringing in more people who were primarily interested in belonging to a cultural rather than a political organization. So while the organization did grow, in my view it could have grown much more had there been a broader approach, had it not become so blatantly identified as a "Communist" organization in its methods and policies. There were many members and supporters of the ULFTA who did not want to join the Party or identify themselves with the Party so closely. There were many aspects about the movement at that time that confused them or they didn't like: the news stories in the media about the crimes and injustices and undemocratic practices in the Soviet Union, which the Party members and supporters rejected as capitalist propaganda, but which other members were not so sure about. Nor did they like some of the bureaucratic and arbitrary methods and practices of the leaders in the Party and the Ukrainian organization. That is why over the years many of them became less and less active and many simply drifted away.
Why youth section was opposed
Q. Krawchuk mentions that at one time the Party opposed the ULFTA setting up its own youth section. It wanted young Ukrainians to belong to the Young Pioneers or the YCL. Yet you say that you belonged to both. So, it would appear that this controversy predated your membership in both organizations, but what do you recall surrounding discussions on whether Ukrainians should have their own youth section or not?
Yes, I did belong to both, but even though I was then only thirteen, I saw the difference between the two organizations. But there were non-Ukrainian Party members who were asking: "Why do we need both? We really don't need the Youth Section. Especially since they conduct their meetings in English anyway." Let's not forget that the Ukrainians, along with the Finns and Jews, were the mainstay of the Party. So for these people it meant that if the Ukrainian members were busy building a Youth Section, they wouldn't be building the YCL. I'm simplifying it a bit, but that's the way it was. That is what Krawchuk alludes to, because the matter was raised officially in high places — to the consternation and anger of the Ukrainians. And I think they were right to be angry.
Opposition not ideological
Q. In the debate as to whether the ULFTA would come more under the Party's control versus having more autonomy, which Krawchuk's book portrayed as a debate between the Party's central executive and the Ukrainian National Fraction Bureau, who took what side? Who lobbied for the dominance of each opinion?
Actually, the top leaders among the Ukrainians were pretty well united. Only a handful of Ukrainian Party members sided with the Party leadership. These included John Weir (Ivan Vyviursky) — this was when he was still very young and before he went to the Lenin School in Moscow — and Dan Holmes (Dan Chomitsky), who worked in the Ukrainian printshop in Winnipeg. The Ukrainian leaders were all unanimous in declaring that the Party was wrong in trying to lead the Ukrainian organizations away from their cultural work and turn more to political work. They said there should be a division between the work of the Communists in the Party and the work of the Communists in the
ULFTA, where they would exercise their influence, which they were doing right from the beginning anyway. Leading members like Popowich and Shatulsky did all kinds of socialist and propaganda work along with their work in the ULFTA. But the Party leadership wanted the entire organization to be more political, more oriented "to the class struggle." That is why they called it making "the turn."
But they weren't talking as much about the Party making a turn, because there weren't very many members outside of those in the ethnic groups, although there was talk about the need to "turn to industrial work." And the pressure was very strong. Krawchuk relates how at the ULFTA conventions in the early 1930s, Sam Carr and Leslie Morris would come and speak openly to the delegates on behalf of the Party. In their speeches they called on the delegates to "turn to the class struggle" and said things like, "when we the workers take power," implying that the revolution was just around the corner.
Many Party leaders and members — and I was one of them — truly believed what the leaders of the Communist International were saying: that world revolution was on the agenda and it would come sooner rather than later. That is why they could tell the Party members and followers that they had to be prepared and direct all their energies, all their organizations, toward making that possible, ignoring the fact that a revolution in Canada was not going to be made or led by a small Party that was overwhelmingly made up of Ukrainian, Finnish and Jewish immigrants. The tragedy is that those ideas really originated in Europe, especially in Moscow.
Why they gave in
When the Ukrainian National Fraction Bureau sent its resolution to the Comintern, the latter was going to discuss it without a representative of the Bureau present to plead its case. Only after the Bureau protested did the Comintern agree to have John Navis present. Without Navis there would have been even less debate. But still, the Bureau lost. Navis was pressured until he finally decided to give in. Even so, the Comintern sent representatives to make sure that the line was carried out.
In retrospect, one can understand why it happened. For the Ukrainian leaders to refuse to knuckle under would have meant creating a major split in the left-wing sector of the Ukrainian community. Individuals like John Weir, especially after 1931, would have led a rump Ukrainian organization that would have carried out the Party line. And those who remained in the ULFTA and WBA would have been faced with a dilemma. They wouldn't have wanted to join the nationalist, right-wing organizations (and probably wouldn't have been accepted if they did), because they still believed in what was being done or being tried in the Soviet Union in those early years. The irony is that the Ukrainian leaders didn't disagree with the Party ideologically, but rather with its bureaucratic methods, especially its interference in their work in the cultural organizations. I told you earlier how leaders of the Italian Party were frustrated because Moscow leaders refused to listen to their suggestions and criticism. If that was true in the 1960s, imagine how less likely they would have been to listen to some Ukrainian Communists from Canada in the 1920s.
John Weir's role
Q. What was unique about John Weir that caused him to side with the Party leadership against the Ukrainian fraction bureau? Was it his stint in the Lenin School? How did he become one of the members of that group?
I believe his training at the Lenin School had a lot to do with it. It had a similar effect on most of its early graduates. On Stewart Smith and Sam Carr, for example, although not as much perhaps on Leslie Morris. All three, Smith, Carr and Weir, had very big egos — each in a different way, as is true of most egos. Each had the idea that he understood Marxism better than anyone else. Each was also convinced by his training that the revolution was on the agenda. So when the Comintern said the ULFTA was not on the path of class struggle, Weir was one of those who truly believed that. His ego was big enough to believe that he knew better than Popowich what the true path to the revolution was. Certainly he thought he was intellectually superior to Popowich, Navis, Shatulsky or any of the others; even Myroslav Irchan, who was a brilliant and talented author, playwright and journalist. Indeed, when Irchan later went to the Soviet Union and was subsequently shot by Stalin's executioners, Weir was one of the first in Canada to say: "Well, if he was shot there must have been a good reason. They know what they're doing there."
Soviet repressions not questioned
There was another incident along these lines that defined the kind of person he was. His wife, Helen, had an uncle, Sylvester Kuchurian, who left with a score or more other Ukrainian Canadians in the 1920s to help build a commune in the "new socialist Ukraine." In the early 1930s, he and all the other members of the commune were arrested and eventually shot by the Stalin regime because they had been abroad. But before he was shot he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, a successful farmer near Lethbridge, in which he said: "Please get in touch with the leaders of the Communist Party in Calgary and remind them that I was a Party member in Lethbridge and would they please send me a letter or some kind of document to prove that I was." The brother-in-law went to Calgary to see Weir, who was then the Party organizer for Alberta, and pleaded with him to provide such a document. To which Weir replied: "If he was arrested, it must have been for a good reason." And he refused to do anything. That was typical of him. He was a very able and talented journalist and writer, with a poetic bent. He knew the Ukrainian language very well and translated many works of Shevchenko and other Ukrainian poets and writers. But he had an ego like you wouldn't believe.
Coping with wives
It should be noted that John had three wives in his life, since this has a bearing on his Party life and is an indication of the kind of person he was.
To explain this, I'd better go back a bit. As I told you earlier, in the late 1920s the Party sent him to Winnipeg to sort of "keep an eye on the Ukrainians." While there he met Alice Salyga, who was a member of the Ukrainian Girls' Mandolin Orchestra, and they established a relationship. Not long after that he was sent to the Lenin School in Moscow, which kept him there for a period of some three years. While there he fell in love with and married Edya, a young Russian woman of Jewish origin, and they had a daughter, whom they called Emma. When he had to leave, however, the Party wouldn't allow him to take his wife and infant daughter back to Canada, so he left her there. On his return to Canada he was made Party organizer in Alberta, so on his way there he picked up Alice Salyga in Winnipeg and brought her with him to Calgary.
Not long after, he visited the city of Lethbridge on Party business and stayed there for several weeks. There he met Helen Kuchurian, the younger sister of Gladys, who three years later would become my wife (although I didn't know that at the time). Helen was a beautiful platinum blonde young girl, just barely past sixteen; he was a very handsome matinee idol type, so he had no problem in attracting her. When he found out she was pregnant, he decided to take her back with him to Calgary, much against her parents' wishes, by the way. And this without their knowing at the time that she was pregnant. When he got back to Calgary, he told Alice he was marrying Helen and asked her to move out, which she did. She married a chap named Hiram Coulter and took the name Ellen Coulter. Both of them were active members of the CCF, and later the NDP, in Calgary for many years.
Soon after their arrival in Calgary, Helen had an abortion and they settled down as husband and wife. A year later they were legally married. During the first years they got along quite well, although it was the kind of relationship where she idolized him as a Party leader, and for him she was a beautiful doll of a wife. Gradually, however, his arrogance and vanity got in the way and eventually became unbearable. After the war broke out he was one of the Party leaders who were interned. While he was interned, Helen became active in the movement to free him and the other internees. Working as a banquet waitress, she joined the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union and soon after became one of its business agents. With her winning personality, charm and organizational abilities, she became one of the Party leaders in her own right, and not just "the wife of John Weir."
When John came out of internment, he found it difficult to accept the new, more mature person Helen had become. So their relationship worsened. They quarreled more frequently and became more embittered toward each other. I know all this because Gladys and I lived together with Helen and John, and all our children shared flats or duplex apartments for many years. At one point their relationship got so bad that Buck told her, "Why don't you leave him?" And she would say, "What would people say?" and "Oh, it would hurt his career in the Party."
During this period Helen was very active in the peace movement and in the international left-wing women's movement. She took several trips to Europe, including the Soviet Union. She knew about John's first wife, Edya, so each time she went to Moscow she would bring gifts for her and her daughter, Emma, and eventually her granddaughter. Later, when John Weir was the Canadian Tribune correspondent in Moscow, he lived with Edya.
Eventually, the marriage ended. But it wasn't by mutual agreement. John came briefly to Toronto one day and simply announced to Helen that he was going back to Moscow and was taking his mother with him. The irony is that she didn't leave him earlier because "it might hurt his career," yet when he decided to go back to Moscow he just up and left.
Another interesting sidelight: at the height of the Stalin repressions, Edya was jailed for some three years. The reasons? For one thing, she was a Jew, but her chief crime was that she had had contact with foreigners. And who were the foreigners? Her husband, John Weir, Leslie Morris, and others. That was the time when Stalin was jailing anybody who had been abroad or had contact with foreigners, including most of the Soviet citizens who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and thousands of returned war prisoners after World War II.
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