Commisar Litvinoff who once lived as a refugee in the Market Square, Cavan Town.

Commissar Litvinoff, Stalin, and life as a refugee in Cavan and Clones

Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column recalls a Soviet official named Litvinoff who was once lived as a refugee in Cavan and then later Clones from around 1889 to 1890s...

Over the centuries many people have emigrated from Cavan and at other times, families have come to live in the county. In the late 19th century, a young revolutionary called Edward Vallach (he changed his name to Maxim Litvinoff after the Russian Revolution in October 1917), became a refugee when the authorities of Czarist Russia sent him into exile. Litvinoff as we shall call him, crossed the seas to find refuge in Cavan where for a time he settled with his sister and her family.

Litvinoff would one day become a high-ranking official in Stalinist Russia. In fact, this important politician was a very close associate of Joseph Stalin with whom he once helped to rob a bank.

In the 1930s, Moscow’s show trials of the British engineers held on trumped up charges captured the attention of the world’s press. Reuters journalist Ian Fleming, the future James Bond author, was in a constant battle to get his news reports telephoned out quickly to make the papers before any rivals did.

During that period, the British Ambassador held regular conversations with the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinoff, in an attempt to halt the falsified proceedings. Litvinoff promised the prisoners ‘special liberties’ but that the British Government’s attempts at ‘alarms and excursions’ would not improve the men’s situation. Many years before this, Maxim Litvinoff had lived in the Market Square, Cavan town, with his relatives, the Levinsons.

In April 1930, an article in the Irish Independent by the Very Rev. Patrick Mallon, P.P., V.G., of Swanlinbar stated: ‘The rulers of Russia fill the stage so menacingly, at the moment, everyone is curious and interested to know what manner of men are they’. The paper reminded the reader about apologists who spoke of the suffering endured under the Czardom and the effects of cruelty inflicted upon the people by the Czars. In discussing the various leaders and ‘dark deeds’ perpetrated under Joseph Stalin, the Herald was kinder towards Maxim Litvinoff, of whom they said: ‘The solitary exception in these dark pictures is that drawn of M. Maxim Litvinoff, Minister for Foreign Affairs and most widely known of the Soviet leaders; his is the softer colours. This may be accounted for by environment as he was closely associated with Ireland in the years succeeding the Moscow Revolution of 1905’, adding that ‘he lived with his brother-in-law, a Jewish trader, in Cavan’.

Litvinoff’s sister Rifka was married to David Levinson, and it is said that both men arrived in Cavan between the 1880s and 1890s with no more than £5 in their pockets which they received from an organization assisting Jewish emigration from Russia. Both he and David Levinson worked throughout Cavan and Monaghan as pedlars, with an edition of the ‘Irish Press’ in 1939 noting that they sold ‘cheap jewellery and fancy goods’; the sale of which eventually improved their lot in life. Up till the 1930s many of the older people in the region remembered the two men calling from door to door.

Until 1910, Litvinoff and his sister’s family lived in the Market Square, Cavan town before they moved to Clones, Co. Monaghan. However, records show that another relation named Bernard Levinson and his family remained in Cavan town.

By this time the Levinsons had a business yard in Cavan and Clones where they traded in furniture and horses.

The Cavan historian Tom Barron, at one stage was in communication with the television personality Sam Levenson who had his own chat show in the United States, and I now wonder if Sam’s forbears were in fact relatives of David Levinson.

Maxim Litvinoff would return to Russia and following the October Revolution, his friend the Very Rev. Patrick Mallon P.P., V.G., Swanlinbar, wrote an article about Litvinoff’s appointment as the Russian Ambassador to Britain in 1917. An article in the Ulster Herald on 12 January 1952 recalled that the appointment as ambassador occurred ‘the day after the Party had murdered the Czar and his family in the cellar’ of the family’s mansion.

A Bailieborough native, the Very Rev. Mallon’s obituary in the Fermanagh Herald on 20 May 1944 recalled that he first met Litvinoff, ‘the Russian Bolshevik leader’, in Cavan town. Indeed, Mallon spoke of Litvinoff ‘going his rounds through the highlands’ of Cavan with ‘no one suspecting that he carried a marshal’s baton in his knapsack’, as told in the Fermanagh Herald, on 26 April 1930.

In 1907, Litvinoff and Joseph Stalin shared a house together in London while attending a conference. However, in that same year, Litvinoff, we are told, had to make another quick escape to Ireland, shortly after robbing a bank in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, with the aid of his ‘fellow conspirator’ Joseph Stalin. On that occasion, Litvinoff took with him a suitcase packed with roubles to Europe.

This money was to be used to purchase weapons for his fellow revolutionaries, but, while in Paris he was arrested with five hundred roubles in his possession, and the Russians requested his extradition, while the French authorities deciding the matter was political, opted to deport him.

Litvinoff then made his way to safety in Ireland and joined his sister’s family again who by now were living in Belfast. Over the next three years, he taught foreign languages at the ‘Jewish Jaffe Public Elementary School’ before moving to England. In 1912, he succeeded Lenin as Bolshevik representative on the International Socialist Bureau. In 1919, Litvinoff wrote a book called, ‘The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning’.

But friends and politics aren’t always agreeable bedfellows and in 1939, Litvinoff resigned as Foreign Minister because it was said that Stalin had little use for a cabinet member who encouraged ‘peace with the Western Nations’. Litvinoff had always been a keen supporter of treaties and the obligations they imposed upon its signatories.

After his political career ended, Maxim Litvinoff lived in retirement with his wife, the Russian-British writer Ivy Low. He died on December 31, 1951.


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