I knew the writer and academic Jim Riordan, who died last week, briefly in the early 90s when I was researching, and active in politics, at Surrey University where he was professor of Russian.
I had heard rumours of Jim before I ever met him — stories about his kindness and his eccentricity, a political eccentricity that didn’t sit well with his academic life in a department that was well know for inducting linguists into a very NATO-oriented “realist” theory of International Relations. The thing that did strike me about him was his mandarin disdain for the pettiness of what he saw as Trotskyist politics. Although I was aware of his political roots in Stalinism, it was difficult for me to understand the kind of stoicism (or rank political pessimism) that came from those who had had Gods that had failed — like Soviet Communism.
As I learned more about his life over the years — particularly in his marvellous book Comrade Jim — the Spy that played for Spartak, I did get some insight into those several generations of British Communists who supported the USSR and vilified anything that vaguely looked like an emancipatory critique of the Soviet Empire. Unlike socialists like Hillel Ticktin, who went through similar experiences as graduate students in the USSR and went on to understand the system through a lens coloured by Trotskyism, Jim was never attracted to any kind of political critique of the system he so admired and remained a member of the Communist Party of Britain and a reader of the Morning Star until his death last week. His story is instructive politically — and it also just a great, great story.
Jim Riordan was born in Portsmouth in 1936 and lived in poverty for most of his childhood. One of his lifelong passions was Portsmouth Football Club (his mum used to send the Pink football paper out to him in the USSR). During his national service he joined the Joint Services School for Linguists alongside people like future governor of the Bank of England Eddie George, and from there was sponsored by the CPGB to join the Higher Party School in Moscow — the secret training college for spies and the cream of international global travellers.
Jim was totally dedicated to the cause but soon came to see the corruption in the regime — finally being expelled for anti-Soviet activities (activities he had no awareness of himself apart from his inability to keep his mouth shut).
His love of football (and his academic career as a commentator on Soviet sport) led to intriguing insights into the regime and domestic Russian Cold War politics.
He was friends with other British exiles like Guy Burgess and Donald McLean (being a fellow pall-bearer at Burgess’s funeral and hanging out with Ho Chi Minh). He also played football against the British diplomatic legation in Moscow — all of the “Brits” from both sides taking each other on in Sunday football. Playing in the area behind the Spartak Moscow stadium, a friend who was helping Jim with his PhD and a Spartak player invited Jim to play a couple of games at Spartak itself under the assumed name of Yakov Eeordhanov, making Jim the only British player to play in Soviet football.
Others questioned the truth of this. Jim was a storyteller but in later years was saddened by the fact that old friends from the Spartak days avoided him and wouldn’t corroborate his story — records having been destroyed or never made in the climate of suspicion in 1960s Moscow.
Returning to Britain Jim was always very open that a “Soviet” future was unappealing to him, but he refused to surrender the politics of his youth and squandered the chance to be part of the opposition to Soviet dictatorship on the British left. His politics were nostalgic for the optimism of his youth, and much like people like Eric Hobsbawm (a much less honest and honourable person than Jim) he wasn’t particularly keen on those who deserted “the Party”.
Much of his work in later days was based around critiques of Russian post-Soviet football. He demanded accountability from a Russian oligarchy which was taking over football and using it as a base for international money-laundering and the creation of new cults of personality. He undertook a passionate campaign.
Jim remained politically active in pensioner campaigns after his retirement, and wrote scurrilous articles on football and local issues in Portsmouth. He was perhaps best-known in some circles as the writer of children’s books and was a winner of the Whitbread prize. His children’s books displayed his kindness and humanity.
Of course his life was sterile politically and squandered in his abdication of liberatory politics. He was part of a generation corrupted by Stalinism and an inability to think clearly about what other roads and possibilities were open to socialists in the aftermath of the defeats of the twentieth century.
Jim Riordan was a good man fallen amongst scoundrels and thieves.