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Alexander Mikhailovich Zuzenko (1884–1938)

by Kevin Windle

Born in April 1884 in the port city of Riga, Alexander Zuzenko went to sea at an early age and was drawn into the revolutionary movement in his late teens. When revolution threatened to overthrow Tsarist rule in 1905, he participated in strikes and disturbances and was briefly imprisoned.

In 1911 Zuzenko left Russia and settled in Australia, where he became active in anarchist circles (the Industrial Workers of the World) and journalism in the Queensland Russian community. In 1918 he was elected secretary of the militant Union of Russian Workers and editor of a radical Russian-language newspaper.

On 23 March 1919, Zuzenko led a demonstration of Russian and Australian workers through the streets of Brisbane under the banned red flag. The police failed to halt the marchers, despite scuffles with the leaders, Zuzenko and Hermann Bykov, but when the procession was over, returned soldiers came out in force to ‘kick the Russians out of Brisbane’, and violent disturbances continued for a week. Zuzenko and Bykov were quickly arrested, and Zuzenko was deported in mid-April. (Bykov and some other Russians were deported five months later.) Zuzenko’s young wife Civa followed him on another ship. Travelling via India to Egypt and Istanbul, they eventually reached Odessa, where Civa gave birth to the first of their three children in November 1919.

In April 1920 Zuzenko attended the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in Moscow. Inspired, as he later wrote, by the speeches of Lenin and Trotsky, he abjured his anarchist beliefs and henceforward adhered to a Bolshevik position. He also began to develop a plan for a return mission to Australia to advance the cause of revolution in the British Empire. In conversation with the leaders of the newly-formed Communist International (Comintern) and with Lenin himself, he argued that Australia was ripe for socialist revolution and that he himself would be the man to organise the country’s Communists as an effective revolutionary force. A mission was duly approved and limited Comintern funding released, enabling Zuzenko to set out for Australia via Britain in October 1920. Complications attended every stage of the journey, and he did not reach Australia until July 1922, having spent many months in Britain, Canada and the USA, using the time to promote the revolutionary cause along his route.

On arrival in Sydney, Zuzenko found Australia’s Communists in disarray: two warring factions were competing for the title of ‘Communist Party of Australia’ and recognition from Moscow. By force of personality, he was able to browbeat the factions into accepting unity on his terms, favouring the ‘Sussex Street’ faction of Jock Garden and Bill Earsman over the former Australian Socialist Party, whom he judged less amenable to the Comintern’s centralised discipline.

Zuzenko’s movements in Australia were closely monitored. A false passport and alias did not deceive the security agencies, who kept him under surveillance from the moment of his arrival. In August 1922 he was arrested in Melbourne and sentenced to deportation for entering the country illegally. In September he was shipped to London, where he was conveyed to Brixton Prison and held for three months, while the British authorities questioned him and considered what to do with an alien equipped with an obviously false Norwegian passport who wished to proceed to Russia. When it became clear that the Soviet government would accept him (without admitting that he was their agent), he was transferred to a Soviet ship bound for Petrograd. His detailed account of his mission, and a separate report on the state of the workers’ movement in the Anglo-Saxon countries, written soon after his return in February 1923, are preserved in the Comintern archives.

Having returned to Soviet Russia, Zuzenko informed the ECCI of his wish to be placed in charge of Comintern operations in Australia, which, he firmly believed, was ‘the Achilles heel of British imperialism’. His wish was not granted. After a period as harbour-master in the southern port of Mariupol, and some months as a journalist in Moscow, he returned to the sea in 1924 as a master mariner in the Baltic Maritime Shipping Line (BMSL). He moved with his family to Leningrad, and from there made voyages to the ports of Britain, Germany and France, from 1930 in command of the MV Smolny. Among his eminent passengers visiting the USSR were the French writer Henri Barbusse, Walter Citrine and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, some of whom made special mention of him in accounts of their travels.

In April 1938, at the height of the great purge, Zuzenko was arrested. By this time he was disillusioned by the waves of arrests taking place around him, but was careful not to disclose his views to anyone outside his family. Indeed his opinions as expressed in the mid-1930s in the newspaper of the BMSL are entirely orthodox Stalinist – no other views could be published. Nevertheless he found himself charged with espionage on behalf of the British and sentenced to death. He was executed the next day, 25 August 1938, and buried at the NKVD’s mass burial site in Kommunarka, south of Moscow. Posthumous rehabilitation came in 1956, in the wake of Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin.

Much mythology came to surround Zuzenko’s name, some of it clearly encouraged in his lifetime by Zuzenko himself. It is often claimed that he was sentenced to death in Australia or Britain, or both, and that King George V personally (in some accounts ‘Edward V’) wanted him executed. The story is baseless but may derive from colourful stories told by Zuzenko to entertain his passengers on the Smolny and fellow-commuters on the train from Moscow to Pushkino, as recalled by his friend Konstantin Paustovsky, the writer. Likewise, there is no truth in the widely reported story of his meeting Maksim Litvinov in the cells of Brixton Prison and subsequently being exchanged for a large number of British officers held by the Soviet government. (Litvinov was briefly imprisoned in 1918; Zuzenko did not see the cells of Brixton until 1922.) It is abundantly clear from the British and Australian documentation of the case that no death sentence was ever mooted, and no exchange proposed, but this did not prevent this story and others equally spurious gaining wide currency in memoirs, fiction, and radio and television features based on his career. 

Sources
Lovell, David and Windle, Kevin (eds.), Our Unswerving Loyalty: a documentary survey of relations between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow 1920-1940. ANU E-Press, September, 2008 (425 pp.); http://epress.anu.edu.au/oul_citation.html 

National Archive (London): HO382/88/1-4, Aliens’ Department: Aliens’ Personal Files. 

National Archives of Australia: (NAA): A1/15, 1924/30649; A401; A6122/111. 

Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial´no-politicheskoi istorii (RGASPI): 495-94-2; 495-94-13; 495-94-18. 

University of Queensland, Fryer Library, Poole-Fried Collection: Boxes 4, 8. 

Windle, Kevin, “Round the World for the Revolution: A Bolshevik agent’s mission to Australia 1920-22 and his interrogation by Scotland Yard”, Revolutionary Russia, Vol. 17, No. 2, December 2004, 90-118. 

Windle, Kevin, “ ‘The Achilles Heel of British Imperialism’: A Comintern agent reports on his mission to Australia 1920-1922. An annotated translation”. Translation, notes and introduction by K. Windle, Australian Slavonic and East European Studies, 2004, Vol. 18, Nos. 1-2, 143-76. 

Windle, Kevin, “Standard-Bearer of the Australian Revolution: The Interrogation of Aleksandr Zuzenko by Special Branch. An annotated transcript”, New Zealand Slavonic Journal, Vol. 39, 2005, 175-215. 

Windle, Kevin, “A Troika of Agitators: Three Comintern Liaison Agents in Australia, 1920-22”, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 52, No. 1, 2006, 30-47. 

Windle, Kevin, Undesirable: Captain Zuzenko and the Workers of Australia and the World, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2012. xxi + 275 pp.

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Citation details

Kevin Windle, 'Zuzenko, Alexander Mikhailovich (1884–1938)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/zuzenko-alexander-mikhailovich-33245/text41480, accessed 21 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Aleksandrov
  • Mamin, S.
  • Mamin, Sania
  • Nargen, A.
  • Matulichenko, Alexander
  • Tjorn, Toni Tollagsen
Birth

April, 1884
Riga, Latvia

Death

25 August, 1938 (aged 54)
Moscow, Russia

Cause of Death

executed

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Occupation
Key Organisations
Political Activism