Russell was born Manassa Lesser in 1915 to working-class Polish émigré parents who lived in London’s east end. Joining the Communist Party in his youth, he said in retrospect, was quite natural since it was the only party that actively opposed the Blackshirts. He had attended university, where, oddly, he joined the OTC, the officer training corps, where he had learned to shoot. Russell has said that his motivation was partly that he had come across some phrase in Lenin to the effect that a working class that doesn’t learn the use of arms deserves to be slaves.
Given this background, it is not surprising that the Party asked Russell to go to Spain in the first group of British volunteers in the International Brigades in September 1936. Russell’s brother also later went to Spain to fight. Sam Russell also met his wife, Margaret, in Spain. Russell recalled: “She was a quite heroic person … much more than I was." Nurses had it tougher than the soldierssince they had to “handle, day by day and night by night, all the casualties, most of them horrific."
There were 30 British volunteers, not enough to form a brigade, so they joined the French and German brigades; typically most of the British volunteers spoke nothing other than English. This fact further propelled Russell forwards since he knew French from school.
His first battle was at the Casa de Campo, the university campus on the outskirts of Madrid. It was October 1936, the Russian guns were just starting to arrive, much of the ammunition did not fit the guns, and there they were, fighting Franco through the faculties. "Of die original 30, by mid-December only six were left. A few were wounded, most were killed. It was a singular casualty rate in the whole of the French battalion." Russell says he had a relatively easy war because he was injured early; he was shot in January 1937 at Lopera, wounded in the back and the foot. Of the 800 who fought in this battle, barely 200 survived.
After recuperating, Russell asked to go back to Spain and was told he could return, but not as a soldier. He was asked to broadcast propaganda news from Barcelona. It was not only an entry into journalism, it was here that he met Margaret, who had broken her leg. After the war, Russell worked for the Daily Worker and Morning Star until he retired in 1984. Siding with the CPGB EC in the fractional battles of the late 1980s, Russell began to utter retrospective bitter, sharp and highly critical assessments of his life in the Communist Party and experience, eventually, as the paper’s Foreign Editor. In due course, he shifted entirely away from Communism, calling himself a socialist, although he tended to be supportive of Blairism.
In 1996, 60 years after the formation of the International Brigades, Russell was one of the veterans who returned to Spain to be offered honorary citizenship. His belief that the brigaders had been forgotten was completely challenged, amidst the fulsome reception they were given.
Source: Guardian 10th November 2000 and other sources
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