Max Petrovsky

David Lipetz (Max Petrovsky), the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant, was born in the Ukraine in 1883. As a young man he joined the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and later joined the Bolshevik faction. In 1907 he attended the SDLP conference in London. As he would have been arrested if he returned to Russia he moved to Brussels where he studied for a doctorate. Lipetz, who now changed his name to Max Goldfarb, moved to the United States where he was a leading writer for Yiddish socialist newspapers.

After the Russian Revolution Goldfarb returned to Russia and was elected president of the province of Burdichev, as well as leader of the Jewish community in the area. According to Francis Beckett: "He defended his city's Jews against the Bolsheviks and was twice sentenced to be executed, first by the Ukrainian army and then by the Soviet military command." Changing his name to Max Petrovsky, he went to Moscow in 1919 and became a key official in the Soviet Commission of Defence.

Petrovsky became a member of Comintern and in 1921 he was sent to London to arrange funding for the Labour Research Department after the Labour Party severed links with the organisation. He returned in 1924 to be guide and mentor to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). During this period he fell in love with Rose Cohen. She also became a Comintern agent, she travelled the world, entrusted with secret missions and conveying not just messages but money and advice to communist parties. In 1922 and 1923 she spent long periods in the Soviet Union and travelled extensively, to Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Max Petrovsky
Harry Pollitt, Bob Stewart and Rose Cohen in Moscow.

Petrovsky became an important figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He was especially close to Bob Stewart, Robin Page Arnot and A. J. Cook, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during the General Strike. Page Arnot later claimed that Petrovsky "was the only comrade on the Comintern with whom I and the rest of the British comrades had the closest links and a personal friendship." Stewart said Petrovsky "had great influence not only on us... but also on such people as Arthur Cook."

Petrovsky eventually married Cohen and in 1927 moved permanently to Moscow. She continued to visit countries on missions for the Comintern. Petrovsky's son, Alyosha, was born in 1929. She began studying at the Lenin School and later she became foreign editor of the Moscow Daily News. This involved a lot of travelling and meant that she had to leave her son with friends in Moscow. Cohen told her sister: "I miss Alyosha terribly, and I'm wondering whether I will last out to the end of the month without him." Cohen was living a privileged life-style and one English visitor described her as "incredibly snobby and earns a vast salary". Freda Utley complained that Cohen "is so very smooth and insincere and also so terribly conceited".

Ivy Litvinov commented: "Max Petrovsky was the ugliest man you ever saw, but very charming. He had one of those great drooping noses and he was a great hulking man, very much older than she was.... She was quite a little celebrity in Moscow.... They had a lovely apartment and they had a little boy and we all became great friends. I was great friends with Rose. And whenever I was alone with Petrovsky he used to make a pass at me.... Like some people did in Moscow, they dressed (Alyosha) terribly, in plus fours and cloth caps."

Francis Beckett, the author of Stalin's British Victims (2004): "Rose and Max were very happy. They were the golden couple of the expatriate community in Moscow, both had exciting, important and interesting jobs, and their son Alyosha was born in December 1929. They were devoted to him. They were sure, not only of their own future, but of the future of the great socialist revolution of which they felt privileged to be a part. In 1930 they moved out of the Hotel Lux and into a flat - a rather splendid one by Moscow standards of the time. Rose seems to have deceived herself into believing that the average Muscovite benefited as much as she and Max did from the revolution."

In October 1934 Rose Cohen wrote to her friend Nellie Rathbone about a holiday she and Max had taken in Georgia: "I've been so busy sun-bathing, sea-bathing, tennis, walking - and eating, that I have had no time to write letters... So far the trip has been marvellous... We stayed three days in Tiflis and nearly died of Georgian hospitality. We met the loveliest people there, who vied with each other to entertain us. You would probably hate the Georgian food, except that they put nuts in everything - but also a special kind of vinegar which they call wine vinegar. For instance, in chicken broth they add this vinegar and the beaten yolk of egg! And it's delicious. And as for their shashlik, there is nothing like it. A real Georgian dinner begins at 5 and goes on till about midnight."

In March 1937 Max Petrovsky was arrested as a supporter of Leon Trotsky. Rose Cohen also became a suspect and Tom Bell, a colleague on the Moscow Daily News was instructed to spy on her. According to a British Intelligence report: "Bell was instructed by his chief in the office to be very friendly with her and not to tell her that she was being watched, also to discuss her husband's arrest as often as possible and... to elicit her views on the matter. He reported that she never spoke of her husband as being guilty, and although he put it to her that he must be guilty, or implicated in some way, otherwise the OGPU would not arrest him, she always replied: An error has been made somewhere."

Max Petrovsky was executed in September, 1937.

Primary Sources

(1) Francis Beckett, Stalin's British Victims (2004)

Rose and Max were very happy. They were the golden couple of the expatriate community in Moscow, both had exciting, important and interesting jobs, and their son Alyosha was born in December 1929. They were devoted to him. They were sure, not only of their own future, but of the future of the great socialist revolution of which they felt privileged to be a part.

In 1930 they moved out of the Hotel Lux and into a flat - a rather splendid one by Moscow standards of the time. A letter of 1 June 1930 from Harry Pollitt in Moscow to his wife, intercepted by British Intelligence, says: "Rose and Max are removing to their new flat today." That year one of her jobs was to find ways to send money to the newly launched Daily Worker in London, edited by Bill Rust.

Rose seems to have deceived herself into believing that the average Muscovite benefited as much as she and Max did from the revolution. She did not see the germs of the great terror that was to come, though they lived in Moscow at the time when Stalin was tightening his grip. In retrospect it all seems obvious, but many things look obvious with hindsight.

(2) Rose Cohen, letter to Nellie Rathbone (October, 1934)

I've been so busy sun-bathing, sea-bathing, tennis, walking - and eating, that I have had no time to write letters. . . . So far the trip has been marvellous... We stayed three days in Tiflis and nearly died of Georgian hospitality. We met the loveliest people there, who vied with each other to entertain us. You would probably hate the Georgian food, except that they put nuts in everything - but also a special kind of vinegar which they call wine vinegar. For instance, in chicken broth they add this vinegar and the beaten yolk of egg! And it's delicious. And as for their shashlik, there is nothing like it. A real Georgian dinner begins at 5 and goes on till about midnight. We had two such dinners in Tiflis and one in Batoum. And this is accompanied by steady wine drinking. Fortunately, they don't drink vodka, but delicious light Georgian wines, which leave no ill effect or make you drunk. You have to finish the glass at one go and, at special toasts, they drink out of tumblers. I kept my end up with the rest and was accepted as a "sister". A great figure on these occasions is the "termada" or toaster. He is usually chosen as the wittiest person present and his toasts keep things going should they begin to flag. At one dinner we had the most famous termada in Tiflis. He was simply brilliant, and very witty in many languages, including pidgin English. After these `orgies' we went for long drives along the Georgian Military Road.