Saturday 10am #7

It started when I noticed a sentence I’d glossed over the first time I read John McNair’s essay “Comrade Katya”. The essay gives an account of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s infamous trip to the Soviet Union in 1933. He writes:

Briefed (if reports reaching the Australian intelligence service are to be believed) at Communist Party Headquarters in London and arriving in Leningrad in the company of George Hardy ‘a well-known Communist’, she travelled to Moscow… (148)

I realised I didn’t know Katharine was briefed at party headquarters or that she travelled with George Hardy. How did McNair know? (McNair knows all sorts of things; his research is impressive, including having read various articles by Katharine in Soviet publications, some of them in Russian.) The reference in the footnote was hard to follow, but I worked out it was referring me to Katharine’s surveillance file kept by ASIO and now digitised by the National Archives of Australia. Not the folder from 1933 though – curiously, it referenced a later folder covering 1948-1955.

I started looking through the scans and came across something surprising: the blanked out entries in the document above. In the 1950s, the federal politicians John Spicer and Bill Wentworth were crusading against communists. From my reading of the archives, they asked for a summary of ASIO’s file on Katharine, which the spy agency obligingly provided. More recently, when the file was made publicly available, the details of Katharine’s 1933 trip to London and the Soviet Union were redacted from it. Sure enough, I returned to her file for 1919-1940 and there was a note saying 6 pages were missing from it as well – including the crucial ones I now wanted about her 1933 trip. This is why I knew nothing about the things McNair had mentioned. I kept looking through the later file, and I found a welcome gap in the wall of secrecy ASIO had put around its intelligence on Katharine in 1933: another summary document, less detailed, revealed those two nuggets of information McNair had discovered, about Katharine visiting the party headquarters and travelling with George Hardy.

I felt intrigued and angry now. I kept digging and Sandra Burchill, whose superbly researched 1988 PhD on Katharine is an essential resource I am always returning to, noted that British spies had presumably been reporting on Katharine in 1933, which is where ASIO received its information from, and Katharine’s son and biographer, Ric Throssell, had been denied access to these reports in 1986. They were the missing pages. Ric was a determined man who fought for things, and he took the matter all the way to a hearing of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. ASIO argued that the British spy agency still regarded the surveillance report as confidential. The tribunal ruled against Ric:

Justice Davies said that while the documents were not now confidential, and were of historic interest only, consent for their issuing had not been obtained from the overseas security organisation which provided them in the 1930s…

Disclosure of [the] documents in question, which were sent in confidence from an overseas security organisation, without its permission, could be expected to damage relationships between it and ASIO and therefore Australia’s international relationships.

I’ve lodged my own request with the National Archives for them to release the missing pages. I don’t like my chances.

The documents matter because they  might provide some insight into Katharine’s motivations and experiences on her Soviet trip. McNair writes that Katharine’s glowing account of the Soviet Union is at best ‘disingenuous’ and at worst ‘dishonest’; others have been harsher. Everyone keeps going back to Australian playwright Betty Roland’s supposed ‘diary’ Caviar for Breakfast (1979). Katharine stayed with her in the Soviet Union and Roland records Katharine’s disillusionment after touring the country. The problem is that Roland’s original diary does not exist, and the published version is only based on it, reshaped by Roland’s own changed political views four decades later. (Credit to scholars Nicole Moore and Jeff Sparrow for their discussions of this.)


One reason I wanted to tell this story is that I love the process of biographical discoveries. The way one thing leads to another and takes me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. Like this one, discoveries often begin with noticing something I didn’t know in a published source. In any part of Katharine’s life, there is much repetition between different accounts, retelling of the same elements from the same sources – it means I have to be alert to the nugget of new information from a different source. The ‘discovery’ wasn’t something new to the world, just new to me – discovered by John McNair. But one of the things my biography will do is to draw together the many discoveries of others into the one place for the first time.


McNair, John. ‘“Comrade Katya”: Katharine Susannah Prichard and the Soviet Union’. In Political Tourists: Travellers from Australia to the Soviet Union in the 1920s – 1940s, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Carolyn Rasmussen, 146–69. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2008.