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'Wilfred Burchett's Retreat From Moscow' by Rupert Lockwood

Rupert Lockwood, orating in the Domain, Sydney, 1963.
Photo: Lou Horton

Between 1965-1968, journalist Rupert Lockwood (1908-1997) was the Moscow-based correspondent for the Communist Party of Australia’s (CPA) newspaper Tribune.  A veteran journalist, Lockwood had become a leftist as the result of his front-line experiences covering the Spanish Civil War for the Melbourne Herald. A party member since 1939, his Moscow experiences contributed to him leaving the party in 1969. In these previously unpublished “Notes and Recollections”, drafted in the 1980s, Lockwood recalls his Moscow experiences, and his association with journalist Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983). The item adds new details to understandings of both journalists. Our copy was supplied by Rupert’s eldest daughter Penny; the original is in Lockwood’s papers in the National Library of Australia. Rowan Cahill recently completed a detailed study of Rupert Lockwood, which should be publicly available later in 2013. 

“I Got Out by the Skin of My Teeth”
Notes and Recollections by Rupert Lockwood
(Supplied by Penny 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 Pnom 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 Poowong, Victoria, 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. 

Wilfred, though he earned foreign currency royalties for his books and articles, 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 Pnom Penh that day.  An Intourist official told him in frozen tones: “It’s no use you expecting a seat at Cairo for Pnom 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, People’s Democracies (1951), 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”.

Wilfred Burchett: Journalist.
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, like so many sympathizers with the new order in Eastern Europe, believed the perjured evidence extracted under torture:

          "Rajk and his gangs were disclosed as miserable, bloodthirsty adventurers who would not hesitate to plunge the country into a ferocious civil war to destroy everything of the new life which had been so painfully built up, to hand over the country lock, stock and barrel to a foreign power, to restore those same forces the people had fought against for so long."

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.

How could intelligent and seasoned reporters like Wilfred Burchett and the vast majority of Communists abroad – including myself – have fallen for it?  The Soviet Union had great prestige as the first country to introduce what was regarded as “socialism”, and as the main contributor to victory over Hitlerism.  The Soviet Union’s wartime performance, as reported around the world, tended to confirm the achievements claimed in economic and social spheres.  Who on the Left could at that stage have believed that for the USSR leaders outrageous lying, torture of innocents, frame-ups, deceit and fakery were the general rule?  That statisticians who gave accurate figures on the Soviet economy were being shot?  The Stalin censorship was one of the most effective in all history.

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 to the widow Rajk and Kostov relatives, 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. 

The “traitor” brand was hurled at him by the Western media, western journalists and conservatives, but those who illegally invaded Vietnam had no moral basis for attacking the millions throughout the world opposing them as “traitors”.  The Whitlam Government recognised the character of the Vietnam war and withdrew Australian troops immediately after its election.

I met and talked with Wilfred Burchett in Moscow in 1961, during the Krushchov era.  He was not very impressed with Krushchov. 

When Marshal Vorishilov, wartime defender of Leningrad, turned up to take his place on the rostrum in Red Square for the November 7 anniversary, Krushchov had him shunted off, as a Stalin collaborator.  Burchett thought this was pretty lousy, as Krushchov himself had been an ardent Stalinist until the dictator’s death. 

Krushchov had further reduced his standing for Burchett by giving Ekaterina Furtseva, Minister for Culture and allegedly Krushchov’s lady friend, a pat on the bottom as she ascended the saluting base in Red Square.  Russians who saw it live on TV were scandalised.

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 Burchett's 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.  Why ever would Wilfred swap all this for a modest pad in Phom Penh?

I used to sit and stare at this peerless panorama from the Burchett balcony.  First, in the dreamscape that stretched from the Vissotni Dom along the embankment to the Kremlin was Catherine the Great’s barracks where some of her officer-lovers rested up.  Another reminder of the strange humanity that contrasted with other conduct of the mixed-up despot Catherine, who corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot and had dissidents executed, was the Moscow Foundling Hospital rising above the Moskva River.

Next along the embankment was the silver-grey dome of the lovely little church where Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible) stood for his third marriage.  When Stalin was rehabilitating the Tzar, who bequeathed him examples in dealing with critics, “Grozny” suddenly took new meanings, like “awesome” and even “majestic”.

Then came Krushchev’s ugly mass of the Hotel Rossiya on the edge of Red Square.  It was nearing completion when Wilfred Burchett departed.  He attended a press conference about another “great Soviet achievement” and asked what he thought of the great dark block of bedrooms, Wilfred pointed to a crane jutting out from the roof toward the river.  “I’d like to see the architect hanging from the end of that crane” he said.  Another KGB dossier entry?

Fortunately, the hotel Rossiya was not tall enough to hide the top of the Kremlin’s crenellated walls, and the towers and golden domes within it were still in view from Wilfred Burchett’s balcony - the nine gold-leafed domes of the Cathedral of the Archangels, restored by Ivan the Terrible after Moscow’s great fire, and the domes of the Cathedrals of the Ascension and Annunciation. 

The Grand Kremlin Palace with its magnificent Georgievsky Hall, where I attended official receptions to such non-Bolshevik dignitaries as the King of Jordan and the King and Queen of Afghanistan, faced the river from Kremlin Hill.

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 Pnom Penh.

Thanks to Prince Sihanouk’s help, Wilfred and family moved into their new accommodation in Phom Penh, a handy base for forays into Vietnam battle zones.

Despite lack of any encouragement or introductions from Soviet officials, I was soon collecting friends among academics, writers, artists, students and radio and theatre people.  Stalinist hardliners in Australia put forward as one reason for my defection from the Communist Party on return that in Moscow I was “mixing with the wrong people”.

For most of my three years in Moscow I was looking after Burchett’s apartment on my own: the family had cleared out after a year or two, not enamoured of Moscow life.  The dvornik or caretaker-guard at the entrance to the Vissotni Dom noted all comings and goings – one more borrowing from the French.  Joseph Fouche, Police Minister for both revolutionary and anti-revolutionary regimes, made every concierge in Paris a police spy.  Russians, both Tsarist and Soviet, followed suit.  Burchett’s guests would also have been noted and added to his KGB dossier.

Interpreters provided to Western Communist correspondents were required to report on the activities of these foreign guests.  I made the mistake of inviting one of them to a party.  He brought Komsomol friends.  An Academy of Sciences member advised me that if I was going to invite party functionaries, not to invite him.  On another occasion a Komsomol non-invitee had been mingling with my guests, asking: “Under what circumstances did you meet Mr. Lockwood”.

Yevtushenko, another party guest, rather liked my joke about the Soviet police, which I heard from girls in the local unisex hairdressing salon.  “Why do our Moscow policemen always walk around in threes?”. Answer: “one of them can read, one can write and the other likes the company of intellectuals”.

These parties did my standing no good in Nogina Square, a part of old Moscow between the Vissotni Dom and China Town, a series of ducal and princely palaces taken over by the Communist Party International Department.  In Nogina Square were the functionaries and offices for supervision of the Communist Parties of the world.  Departments operated for all European, Asian, African, North, Central and South America and Oceania.  The Australian and New Zealand departments worked in tandem.  Both had been giving trouble because of Chinese influences.  I was clearly beginning to fall out of favour with my contact in Nogina Square, Alexei Molchanov.

Molchanov’s crudities and assumptions towards me furnished an interesting reflection of where the Soviet Union and its “leading role” was heading, with Brezhnev doing his best to rehabilitate Stalin.  The CPSU bureaucracy presumed it had a right to control the private lives of foreign Communists, just as it had taken control of the justice, education and other systems in Eastern Europe.  Molchanov would have known about the guests at my parties, and Wilfred’s, from that tapped phone bequeathed to me by Burchett and the dezhurnaya (guard) on the door into the building.

Nogina Square’s censorship and occasional confiscations of my personal mail would have followed the same practices applied to Burchett’s mail.  The Nogina Square apparatchiki did not think it good for my soul to associate with those not nominated and approved by them.  But Wilfred Burchett commanded far more resources and contacts than I, and he was not a Communist Party member.  He had a much wider and varied circle of friends, not all of them on the approved list at Nogina Square either.

Little wonder that Burchett felt there were disadvantages and insecurities that outweighed the privilege of that view of Catherine the Great’s barracks, Ivan Grozny’s nuptial church and the gold-leafed domes of the Kremlin.

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, suffering fragility and perhaps bitterness.

Burchett's scoop, reporting Hiroshima in 1945
Wilfred was an intellectual seeking better justice than that meted out to him and his family by the Australian government, which denied him his birth right of an Australian passport for 17 years.  During that time he was refused entry into Australia to visit his dying father and for a second time to attend his funeral - shades of the Soviet AVIR exit visa behaviour.  Like many of us (including some of his detractors who were members of the CPA themselves), Wilfred was in the early days blinded in his quest for human rights.  But what you don’t read about are his great achievements – he was party to the 1955 Ten Principles of Bandung on human rights and peace agreed by 29 Asian and African countries, he was the first Western journalist into Hiroshima after the A-bomb was dropped on that city, sending reports and photos around the world, much to the chagrin of Western powers who wanted to play down its impacts on civilians.  He warned about the Khmer Rouge, when in 1970 Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup.  Sihanouk is now again King of Cambodia, but at what price?  Millions died in the US-imposed war, in US carpet bombings and the ensuing Khmer Rouge genocide.  Wilfred also brought to light for the world some of the atrocities being committed in Vietnam during the US war on this country.

As with many non-conforming writers of the Cold War era, just about anything can be said of Burchett without fear of libel awards, particularly now that he is dead.

Perhaps the prize should go to Roland Perry The Exile: Burchett, Reporter of Conflict (1988) in which Burchett is depicted as a key operative in arranging the defection of Kim Philby in Moscow.  Unfortunately for Perry’s story, Philby was already in Moscow (he left Beirut by Russian freighter) when he claims Burchett was summoned from Hanoi to “his Moscow base” to organise Philby’s voyage to Russia via Cairo. Perry obviously also hadn’t done enough research to find Burchett’s ‘unpersonned’ status with Moscow.

Other prizes for non-evidence based and badly researched stories about Burchett go to Robert Manne who published allegations about Burchett that had already been rejected in a libel case by a NSW Court.  And we shouldn’t forget denunciations of Wilfred by some in the CPA (and ex members of the CPA) where truths about the Soviet Union were not accepted even when I returned and spoke about the reality of Soviet life in the late 1960s. 

In the building of the Burchett mythology, it is not necessary to “see” or produce acceptable documentation.  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.


For a detailed study of Rupert Lockwood see Rowan Cahill, "Rupert Lockwood (1908-1997): Journalist, Communist, Intellectual" at