Rose Cohen, the daughter of Morris Cohen, a tailor, was born in 1894. Her parents had recently arrived from Łódź in Poland. The family was extremely poor and Rose had to leave school at the earliest opportunity. However, she attended evening classes provided by the Workers' Educational Association. As Francis Beckett has pointed out: "Rose was a fast and hungry learner. The WEA gave her an extensive education in politics and economics as well as fluency in three languages. For a poor immigrant, and a woman at that, this was itself a remarkable achievement."
Cohen joined the staff of the London County Council before moving at the end of the First World War to the Labour Research Department (LRD). The organisation was originally established by Beatrice Webb and her husband, Sidney Webb, but by this time it had become under the control of more left-wing socialists. A fellow worker at the LRD, Margaret Cole, argued in her autobiography, Growing Up into Revolution (1949): "So far as I remember, nobody over thirty, and hardly any of its members had incomes of any size. As a result we had scarcely any personal ties... in effect we lived as well as worked together with our eyes on the job... Being so dedicated, we were extraordinary happy, so happy that we never realised it fully, but worked ourselves into states of tremendous agitation over minute differences in the philosophy of Guild Socialism."
Cohen was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Other members included Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Tom Mann, Ralph Bates, Winifred Bates, Rose Kerrigan, Peter Kerrigan, Bert Overton, Hugh Slater, Ralph Fox, Dave Springhill, William Mellor, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, George Aitken, Dora Montefiore, Sylvia Pankhurst and Robin Page Arnot. McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB.
Maurice Reckitt wrote in As it Happened (1941): "Rose Cohen had great vivacity and charm.... and was probably the most popular individual in our little movement.... With her ardent spirit, coupled with an absence of any national roots, it was natural that she should plunge into and swim with the Communist tide which flowed so strongly in 1920, and I have always believed that her love for the Russian ballet had not a little to do with her enthusiasm for the country (though not the regime) of its origin."
Eventually, the Labour Research Department came under the control of the Communist Party of Great Britain and was largely funded by the Soviet government. Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary: "The Fabian Research Department - a promising child of ours - ends in a lunatic asylum. To take your livelihood from the Russian government, when millions of Russians are starving, for services which are obviously unreal or, at any rate, irrelevant to famine, is rather a poor business."
Rose Cohen joined the party in 1920. Maurice Reckitt wrote in As it Happened (1941): "Rose Cohen had great vivacity and charm.... and was probably the most popular individual in our little movement.... With her ardent spirit, coupled with an absence of any national roots, it was natural that she should plunge into and swim with the Communist tide which flowed so strongly in 1920, and I have always believed that her love for the Russian ballet had not a little to do with her enthusiasm for the country (though not the regime) of its origin."
Francis Beckett has argued that "Rose Cohen... was part of the small circle of young communists which soon came to dominate the party, including its future leader, and the most important figure in British communist history, Harry Pollitt. She was, according to everyone who knew her, lively, intelligent, literate and hauntingly beautiful, with brown eyes and long dark hair. All the men who knew her talked of her smile, but say she was unaware of its magical quality. I have seen a packet of letters written to her during the 1920s which clearly indicate a large band of obsessed male admirers throughout the British left."
Harry Pollitt was especially attracted to Cohen. According to the author of Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1995): "In the early 1920s Harry Pollitt fell in love with Rose Cohen, and proposed marriage - on her account, several times, and on his exuberant and perhaps exaggerated account fourteen times. They never lost their affection for each other.... She was clever, fluent, entertaining, and attractive." John Mahon, Pollitt's biographer, has admitted that "he was greatly attracted to Rose Cohen, who had black hair, red cheeks, flashing eyes, a provocative smile and quick wit."
Rose Cohen fell in love with Max Petrovsky in 1921. He had arrived in London from Russia to arrange funding for the Labour Research Department after the Labour Party severed links with the organisation. Cohen 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.
In 1924 Cohen was in Odessa with William Norman Ewer, the foreign correspondent of the The Daily Herald, when she met Oswald Frewen of The Daily Telegraph and Clare Sheridan of The Daily Express in 1924. Frewen fell in love with Cohen. He wrote in his diary: "She has probably been thinking that I was rather in love with her and that unless she kept a trifle aloof I might get a trifle unmanageable. She is old enough anyway for all her childish appearance, to have that amount of worldly wisdom . Frank, friendly, gentle but aesthetic, unconventional and a communist, I wonder just how I shall react to her in London. Bare legs and a Tartar dress are her setting. How will she appear in Mount Street?"
Cohen eventually married Max Petrovsky and in 1927 moved permanently to Moscow. She continued to visit countries on missions for the Comintern. Her son, Alyosha, was born in 1929. She began studying at the Lenin School and in October 1930 she became a journalist on the weekly English language newspaper, The Workers' News. The editor was Anna Louise Strong. Cohen also worked closely with Ralph Fox. She wrote to her friend, Eva Reckitt, in August 1931, that "I am now working on The Workers' News, doing editing and writing up stuff. I rather enjoy it, but it is going to be difficult to combine with my studying."
In 1932 Cohen 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".
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."
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."
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."
Rose Cohen was also arrested on 13th August 1937 and charged with being "a member of an anti-Soviet organisation existing in the ECCI (Comintern) and a resident agent of British Intelligence". The day after the news came out that Cohen had been arrested, the Daily Worker published an editorial: "The National Government is starting up a new attack on Anglo-Soviet relations. As a pretext for this they are using the case of the arrest of a former British subject on a charge of espionage. The individual concerned, it is understood, is married to a Soviet citizen and thereby assumed Soviet citizenship alike in the eyes of Soviet law as of international law... The British Government has no right whatever to interfere in the internal affairs of another country and of its citizens." The newspaper also criticised the Daily Herald for bringing up the case and dismissed its "attack upon the country of socialism... This is not the first time that the Daily Herald has lent itself to the most poisonous attacks on the Soviet Union."
William Gallacher went to see Georgi Dimitrov and asked about Rose Cohen and other foreigners who had disappeared. Dimitrov looked at him gravely for a few moments, then said: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." Harry Pollitt also made representations on behalf of Rose Cohen. However, as his biographer, Kevin Morgan, has pointed out: "Rose Cohen, who was sucked instead into the maelstrom of Stalin's terror through her ill-fated preference for the Comintern representative Petrovsky. Her sentencing by the Soviet authorities, though not her death, was made known to British communists in 1937, but even in the case of a woman he had loved, Pollitt's private representations were not accompanied by any public protest or disavowal."
Rose Cohen was found guilty on 28th November 1937 and shot later that day. In a report published in March 1958, the Chief Military Procurator reported that: "It is incumbent to rescind the sentence in relation to Cohen and to quash the case against her in the absence of evidence against her on the basis of the fact that a new investigation has been carried out and it has been established that she was without foundation found guilty of anti-Soviet espionage activity."
Early in 1937 Petrovsky was arrested. The atmosphere of terror in Moscow at once ensured that his wife became an outcast. Maxim Litvinov forbade Ivy from going to see her, but Ivy's teenage daughter brought Rose and Alyosha to Ivy. Rose was lonely and terrified. "Not a single one of my friends has been to see me," she said. In April, knowing of Max's arrest, Harry Pollitt wrote her a chatty letter obviously intended to cheer her up: "My visit to Spain gave me great satisfaction. There is quite a story about how 1 got there, which will make you laugh. Seeing the war on the ground made a great impression on me, and I think that my visit had a good effect on the lads... We all send our love. Don't lose heart."
She never saw the letter, or laughed at Harry's story. The letter was opened, and the information in it considered too sensitive for her to see. It went into a dusty Moscow archive. Nellie also wrote. Her letter was returned.
Just before Petrovsky's arrest, the Soviet authorities asked Rose to give up her British citizenship and apply for Soviet citizenship. Innocently, she agreed. As soon as her husband was arrested she realized her mistake, and frantically tried to retrieve British citizenship, because British passport holders were relatively safe. But it was too late. Max was shot, and they came for Rose in August 1937, seven months after his arrest. Alyosha was taken from her and sent to a children's home. Rose broke down completely in prison, mainly for fear of what would happen to him. For eight months, no one knew where she was. Nellie asked Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher to do what they could.
Pollitt pressed his protest further than his colleagues thought was wise. He had long and troubled interviews with Dimitrov and Manuilsky. He made so many waves that Comintern officials floated the idea with other CP leaders of replacing him with someone more malleable. Another English Communist, Pearl Rimmer, went to see him to beg him to intercede on behalf of her husband, Dutch Communist George Fles, then languishing in a Soviet prison. "What can I do?" he said to her. "They won't listen to me. They've arrested Rose Cohen. I know she's innocent; I've known her from a child." Fles died in prison.
Gallacher went to see Georgi Dimitrov in Moscow about Rose and other foreigners who had disappeared. Because Gallacher was an MP, he probably got a politer hearing in Moscow than that accorded to Pollitt. That at any rate is what he told Nellie Rathbone. Years later he told his friend and literary executor Phil Stein that Dimitrov looked at him gravely for a few moments, then said: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." And Gallacher did not pursue them.
In April 1938 the British newspapers learned of Rose Cohen's arrest. The foreign office protested - ironically, the protest had to go to Maxim Litvinov. But Litvinov said she was now a Soviet citizen and no concern of Britain's, and had been sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for espionage.
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.
That same day, Pollitt arrived in Moscow to discuss the political situation in Britain. This would have been his first meeting with Rose after Petrovsky's arrest. Presumably the secret police did not want this meeting to take place. They may also have hoped that they could squeeze out of Rose something they could use against Pollitt. At all events, they kept Pollitt kicking his heels for days in the Hotel Lux while they questioned Rose Cohen.
Just what was going on in the minds of Pollitt and his colleagues, who had regarded Max and Rose as close friends? Pollitt wrote to the general secretary of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov, of his "very warm personal friendship" with Petrovsky and his confidence in his unwavering loyalty to Stalin and the international communist movement. The news of the arrest, he wrote, came as "one of the greatest shocks of my life".
But in public, Britain's communist leaders threw their old friends to the wolves. When Rose's arrest became known in England, which was not until months after it happened, and other newspapers demanded that the Soviets at least charge her publicly and say where she was, the Daily Worker snarled at their anti-Soviet stance, and furiously insisted that the British government had no right to intervene. It was a weaselly way to abandon a woman whom every leading communist in Britain had counted as a friend - somehow even more distasteful because the editorial fastidiously declined to name her.
William Gallacher, Britain's only communist MP, went to see Dimitrov. When Gallacher raised the question of Rose, Dimitrov looked at him gravely for a few moments, and said: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." And Gallacher did not.
Privately, Pollitt was distraught, and pressed his protests about Rose Cohen further than his colleagues thought wise. He had a long interview with Dimitrov, and according to Ivy Litvinov, he even saw Stalin himself, and asked him to send Rose back to England.
Comintern officials started to suggest to other leading British communists that Pollitt was not as reliable as he ought to be, and they should think about replacing him. Things were worse for Pollitt than either he or they knew. Rose was one of several foreign communists and Comintern leaders who were arrested in the spring and summer of 1937. People will say anything under torture. We know that the Hungarian Bela Kun named Pollitt as one of his "collaborators" in his Trotskyist "conspiracy", and he may not have been the only one.
Whatever Dimitrov said, Pollitt and his colleagues not only ensured that the British Communist party failed to protest, but also prevented effective public protests from anyone else on the left. Approaching public figures on the left, Rose's old friend Maurice Reckitt found it hard to get significant leftwingers to sign a very moderate letter to the New Statesman protesting at her disappearance.
If British communist leaders behaved discreditably in abandoning Rose, so too did the British government. The Foreign Office seems to have been eager to seize on the excuse that Rose had given up her British citizenship and become a Soviet citizen, in order to wash its hands of her. In fact, my reading of British Foreign Office documents now available suggests that it is most unlikely she did anything of the kind. She was a British citizen who had never given up her citizenship. The Soviet Union persecuted her falsely for being a British spy. The British government failed her because she was a communist.
The official who briefed the foreign secretary commented smugly that the British Communist party seemed to carry little weight in Moscow: "The history of the Russian revolution shows that the 'Bloomsbury Bolshevik' or 'parlour pink' is the first to go to the wall." The Daily Sketch gloated: "A woman who was an apostle of this anti-democratic creed must rely now upon the protests of a 'capitalist' state." It was not much to rely on.
Rose, it is said, broke down completely in prison, and cried constantly for Alyosha, right up to the moment, on November 28, 1937, when they took her out and shot her. Petrovsky was already dead: he had been shot in September.