It is always difficult to work out who can be described as conservative if they are not Conservative and part of the British political scene. Harold Williams, a New Zealander who came to Britain and became a highly regarded journalist, reporting from Russia and becoming eventually Foreign Editor of The Times (when it was still the Thunderer and not a gossip rag) probably saw himself as a "liberal" and, indeed, in Russian terms that is what he was, becoming involved with the Kadets through his wife, the formidable Ariadne Tyrkova, first woman member of the Kadet party's executive committee. So he was not an old-fashioned monarchist, which would have made him conservative in Russian terms. But the Kadets and many of the White army officers Williams felt close to would have been conservative or even Conservative by British standards.

For a while before and during the First World War Williams was considered to be one of the pre-eminent experts on Russia and, together with such luminaries as Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace (my particular hero in that rather muddled story) and Sir Bernard Pares, he led the campaign for rapprochement and an alliance between Britain and Russia. Looking back on what it led to (the First World War and its various outcomes) one may feel doubtful about the policy and the campaign but with Germany becoming more powerful and the Great Game more or less coming to a standstill while becoming more and more expensive, it seemed like a good idea. (More of that in other postings. I promise.)

During the First World War Williams together with the novelist Hugh Walpole set up the British Propaganda Office in Petrograd, promoting Britain in Russia as opposed to Russia in Britain. Williams and his wife supported the February Revolution, not least because they, like so many other people, thought that this would stiffen the Russians' fighting ability as well as help the country develop into a democracy.

Things did not turn out that way. Both Tyrkova and Williams opposed the Bolshevik coup (she had taken Lenin's measure years before when both of them were emigres in Switzerland) and had to go into hiding, eventually making their way to England where they both wrote about the situation Bolshevik Russia. Before that Williams reported from the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, giving possibly the best and most detailed account of what went on. This is important to note because of what happened later with his reputation.

When the Civil War broke out both the Williamses went back and he became war correspondent with Denikin's army. As the Whites lost the war Williams's reputation declined. He may or may not have been reporting accurately or objectively (nobody was, as it happens) but he was involved with the losing side so he had to be wrong. That accounted for him finding it hard to get work in journalism when he eventually came back to Britain but that, too, changed when, in 1921, he became Foreign Editor of The Times. He died in 1928 and that may have contributed to him becoming less important in accounts of journalistic reporting from Russia. The fact that he was fiercely anti-Bolshevik did not help either.

In her recent biography of Harold Williams, slightly awkwardly entitled Russia's Greatest Enemy?: Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions, the historian Charlotte Alston says in the Introduction that opinions of his journalism were mixed. She then proceeds to quote Maxim Litvinov, the first Soviet Plenipotentiary in Britain who called Williams Russia's greatest enemy but was hardly an objective witness; also Arthur Ransome who was as fiercely pro-Bolshevik as Williams was anti and who saw no need to help his friends the Williamses as they ran for their lives in late 1917; and Philip Knightley who, in his history of war correspondents, The First Casualty, that Williams's very personal involvement with the White movement made him the least reliable correspondent of the period and he ought never have been sent to cover the Russian Civil War. Presumably, Knightley does not think highly of Bernard Pares or Robert Wilton, who was seriously right-wing even by Russian standards, either. On the other hand, why should one think that Arthur Ransome, who was very personally involved with the Bolsheviks (close friend with Karl Radek and others, married eventually one of Trotsky;s secretary) was in any way reliable.

Harold Williams was also a remarkable linguist, picking up languages with ease from a very early age and writing grammar books for those who did not have one. He is said to have known fifty-eight languages but that may be just a myth. Possibly it was no more than fifty.

When his widow, Ariadne Tyrkova-Williams published his biography, Cheerful Giver, in 1935, reviews were mostly positive about the book and about the subject. However, Harold Nicolson decided to indulge in his usual waspishness when he wrote about it in the Daily Telegraph Christmas Supplement, published on November 29, 1935. According to Charlotte Alston:
Harold Nicolson, who also reviewed Tyrkova-Williams's biography, painted a picture of Williams lisping in Maori, speaking in Serbian with a slightly Croat intonation, Rumanian with a Bessarabian lilt and Swedish with 'a decidedly Norwegian accent'.
One cannot help wondering how Nicolson, who knew none of these languages and did not think highly of the people in question could discern this. The likely explanation is that he considered both Williams and his wife to be "bedint", his and Vita Sackville-West's favourite term for people they did not think were quite - quite.

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