“Waugh on Russia Revisited” by Milena Borden

Waugh Society member Milena Borden has kindly sent the following short essay on Waugh’s attitude toward Soviet Russia as reflected in his novel Sword of Honour. She started it some time ago but has found it has now become relevant to present events:

Waugh on Russia Revisited

The literary world knows that Evelyn Waugh wrote one of the best, if not the best novel about the Second World War, a trilogy entitled Sword of Honour (1965). It also knows that he was an uncompromisable anti-communist and rejected all things related to Marxism, the Soviet Union and atheism. But it is perhaps less known that the title of Chapter Eight (“State Sword”), as well as of the trilogy itself, is a direct reference to the Stalingrad Sword presented at the Teheran Conference in November/December 1943. The sword was made especially for the occasion at the British steel company Wilkinson Sword, which, among other military ware, also produced ceremonial swords for the Household Cavalry of the British Army. The sword was to mark the Anglo-Soviet Treaty between Churchill and Stalin signed in 1942 and the Battle of Stalingrad which was one of the culminations of the fighting on the Eastern Front.

The actual presentation of the “sword of honour” was an important British event at the time, with the sword being sent to many cities around the country where thousands of people saw it on display. After that, it was presented at a ceremony to the Russian Embassy in Teheran in a commemorative box and is preserved to this day in the Museum of the Stalingrad Battle in the Russian city of Volgograd, which was previously called Stalingrad, and before that, Tsaritsyn.

In Chapter Eight, Guy Crouchback observes the long queues of people wanting to admire the sword outside Westminster Abbey. While he himself is not tempted to join them, others are. Among the attendees is Corporal Major Ludovic of Hookforce who, after pausing reminiscently by St Margaret’s Church, makes his way inside  Westminster Abbey, which is about to close, and manages to see the sword: “He glimpsed the keen edge, the sober ornament, the more luxurious scabbard, and then was borne on and out. It was not five minutes before he found himself once more alone, in the deepening fog.” (Penguin Classics, 2001, p. 469) Later, on the same evening, he goes on to visit Sir Ralph Brompton formerly of the Foreign Office with whom Ludovic has previously served five years abroad. They meet at Sir Ralph’s fortified place near Victoria Street and have a conversation about the sword.

Ludovic plans to write a sonnet about it as part of a literary competition in the weekly magazine Time and Tide and they talk about it. The conversation, although casual as between old friends, becomes slightly edgy when it comes to the sword itself, with Sir Ralph underlining the meaning of the sword-present in support of the “tanks and  bombers and the People’s Army driving out the Nazis” whereas Ludovic thinks about it as a reminder of his disillusionment with the war. (Idem. p. 471) The sword then becomes a recurrent motif throughout the chapter, which ends with a comparison between the winning entry of the competition and Ludovic’s sonnet, which “failed to reflect the popular mood”:

Stele of my past on which engravèd are/The pleadings of that long divorce of steel,/ In which was stolen that directive star,/By which I sailed, expunged be. No spar,/ No mast, no halyard, bowsprit, boom or keel/ Survives my wreck… (Idem. p. 488)

Waugh turned the sword into a symbol of the divide between the main character Guy Crouchback’s mistrust and dislike of the alliance with Stalin and the political support the British state and public gave to “Uncle Joe”. Previously Stalin was an ally of Hitler according to the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After it was terminated, when Hitler attacked Russia, in the West, the idea clarified that there was a need for a second front, and negotiations started with Stalin, less than a year after the Churchill – Stalin alliance had been concluded. Although it was conceived as an alliance of convenience, a huge effort went into convincing the British public that it was a step in the right direction to win the war. It remains a controversial event of the history of the Second World War to this day.

It is largely accepted that Churchill was hostile to communism, but he was also pragmatically focused on defeating Germany and this over-rode all other considerations. The alliance was consequently incorporated into the broad Churchill myth that he made the right decision at the right time. Yet, as a political compromise, the alliance became a dividing line between the West and the East in political opinion as well as in academic research since the end of the war in 1945. The argument in the Anglo-Saxon historiography that it was an alliance out of necessity was never full- heartedly accepted behind the iron curtain, with Eastern Europeans believing that they were indeed betrayed and forsaken by the British and the Americans. In the Russian-language history, this episode has been overshadowed by the view that the Soviet army fought a heroic battle on the Eastern Front, which eventually freed Europe.

It is very telling that until this day the commemoration of the sword in Russia praises J.B. Priestly for his contribution to the popularisation of the Soviet Union’s glory and does not mention Waugh’s novel (see https://stalingrad-battle.ru/projects/emploee-writes/2018/3949/?sphrase_id=8489) After the fall of the Berlin Wall, more histories of the Second World War have been revisiting the same old questions: what was the price of the Churchill’s alliance with Stalin and why was Eastern Europe betrayed by the West, which also became major themes in Waugh’s trilogy. Waugh, who was a very English writer actually thought like most of the people in Eastern Europe that it was double-dealing. He did not believe in any compromise with communist Russia and hence satirised the British establishment’s presenting Stalin with the sword: “By the way, do you realise it was Trimmer who gave the monarch the idea of the Sword of Stalingrad? Indirectly, of course. In the big scene of Trimmer’s landing I gave him a “commando dagger” to brandish. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen the things. They were an idea of Brides-in-the-Bath’s early on. A few hundreds were issued. To my certain knowledge none was ever used in action. A Glasgow policeman got a nasty poke with one. They were mostly given away to tarts. But they were beautifully made little things. Well, you know how sharp the royal eye is for any detail of equipment. He was given a preview of the Trimmer film and spotted the dagger at once. Had one sent round to him. Then the royal mind brooded a bit and the final result was that thing in the Abbey. An odd item of contemporary history.” (Penguin Classics, 2001, p. 478)

His views of course are particularly poignant today when the West and the entire world faces a war between Russia and Ukraine in the heart of Eastern Europe. Had Waugh lived to see the present Russian war, with apocalyptic scenes from Ukrainian cities and millions of refugees streaming into Europe, he most probably would not have been triumphant in his prophetic understanding of Russia but simply sorrowful.

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