BOOK REVIEW / Sins of a secular saint: 'La Pasionaria: The Spanish Firebrand' - Robert Low: Hutchinson, 17.99 pounds

Click to follow
'DOLORES . . . was in such a state of radiant exultation as I have never seen. . . . Goodness and truth shine from her as from a true saint of the people. Not for nothing is she called La Pasionaria.'

It was in these excited terms that Dolores Ibarruri - aka La Pasionaria, legendary revolutionary of the Spanish Civil War - was described in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. The speaker is an Izvestia correspondent; even for the most correct of Communists, La Pasionaria took on all the trappings of a secular saint. A talented fighter, she made use of the matriarchal traditions of Catholicism; even her brilliantly chosen nom de guerre, with its religious and sexual overtones, helped. In fact, it means 'passion flower', too gentle, perhaps, for a cross between Boadicea and Joan of Arc.

Mother Courage she may have been, Mother Theresa she was not. Like many single-minded campaigners for the good of mankind, Dolores Ibarruri was pitiless towards individuals, but she had been raised in a hard school. One of eight surviving children of a Basque iron miner, she was born in 1895 into a community with a tradition of radicalism. This biography gives only the bare outlines of her youth, but a welter of impressive information about the industrial and social weaknesses of contemporary Spain.

At 20, Dolores married a young miner, Julian Ruiz, who converted her to socialism, and there began years of hardship that made her earlier circumstances look almost comfortable. Julian was often on strike or in prison, leaving Dolores, penniless, to fend for herself and her babies. She had a daughter. She had triplets, two of whom died. She had a son. She had another girl, who died, and then her first daughter died. By the time she was 33, there were four small graves in the cemetery she trudged past as she carried her husband's lunch to the mine.

But somehow, through all this, she had become involved in the embryonic Spanish Communist Party, and in 1931 she moved to Madrid to work for the party, leaving Julian behind. Campaigning, travelling, avoiding the police, she couldn't make a home for her two children: they even lived partly on the streets when she was in prison. In 1935 she sent them to the Soviet Union to a special home for the children of foreign Communists.

For Dolores, though, these were heady years. She was a hands-on radical, brilliant at dramatic appearances that made headlines and at forging the fighting slogans Spain still remembers, most famously the cry that repelled the Fascists from Madrid: 'No pasaran]' - 'They shall not pass]'

After she was elected to the Cortes in 1936, her sometimes blood-curdling language added to a parliamentary atmosphere which Low portrays as so full of hatred that civil war seemed inevitable. Low gives depressing evidence that the Communist campaign was almost entirely run from Moscow, by foreign professionals who used home-grown stars like La Pasionaria mostly for agitprop. And Stalin's methods prevailed: denunciations, imprisonment, even torture by the NKVD-inspired secret police set up in Madrid by Alexander Orlov. In her blind allegiance to Moscow, Dolores had very dirty hands.

This part of the story is sickening, but not as sad as what came next. The Fascists won, La Pasionaria was whisked away to Moscow, and there she stayed for the next 40 years, an exiled figurehead politely clapping successive Kremlin rulers. Ironically, her domestic life improved (which is not saying much): she was reunited with her children (although her adored son died in 1941 fighting for the Red Army), and she managed to get Stalin to extricate her young lover from a German camp. Even poor old Julian Ruiz landed up in Moscow, a labourer in some dreary factory.

Robert Low is dutiful in his chronicling of these dull decades, but it's a thankless task. La Pasionaria remained titular leader of the Spanish Communist Party, but her exiled compatriots, whose lot was often bitterly hard, felt she was distant, uncaring, superannuated: La Pensionaria. The end of the story is like the resolution of a classical play, almost: the monster Franco dies at long last, and Dolores goes home, a national heroine. She died just as Communism died, in 1989, two days after the first breach in the Berlin Wall.