The British wrote off Malcolm Muggeridge as a duffer who cropped up on 1970s TV with an opinion about everything. To the young, another lecture from an elderly Christian moralist was simply not relevant.
Muggeridge’s story is a tale of contradictions. Born in Croydon in 1903, his father was a Labour MP and a founder-member of the Fabian Society, and Malcolm grew up sharing similar views. While teaching English literature in Egypt he met Arthur Ransome, the author of Swallows and Amazons, who wrote for the Manchester Guardian, and who recommended him for a post there.
In 1932, Muggeridge and his wife went to Moscow where he planned to complete a novel, Picture Palace. The book was derailed by libel problems, and Muggeridge was broke. At this point he grew disillusioned by Russia’s socialist utopia, and investigated reports of the terrible famine manufactured by Stalin in the Ukraine. As he travelled there without permission and sent back reports to the Manchester Guardian in a diplomatic bag, evading censorship, he became increasingly appalled by what he found; starvation, corruption, brutality, lies.
Documenting the genocide of millions of peasants, he also accused western journalists of collusion. Many still regarded Stalinist Russia as the great socialist experiment and would not hear otherwise; there’s no one as censorious as a righteous liberal. In 1932, The New York Times had a Liverpudlian journalist based in Moscow called Walter Duranty, who flatly denied the mass starvation, winning the Pulitzer Prize in that year for his stories about Soviet Russia. Given the political situation in Germany, newspapers were wary of ruffling Russian feathers, and froze Muggeridge out of work.
To the liar had come rewards, and to the truth-teller unemployment. So Muggeridge wrote a biting satire about western journalists in Russia, specifically making fun of Duranty in his novel Winter In Moscow. Subsequently he worked for the Ministry of Information and became a spy.
In his post-war career he grew ever more contrarian. Having penned The Earnest Atheist: A Study of Samuel Butler he later wrote a bestseller, Jesus Rediscovered. He edited Punch magazine, despite an admission of having no sense of humour; he was contemptuous of pop music, complained about birth control, the permissive society, and the Monarchy, and had disillusioned the Monty Python team – who had admired him – for his stance against their film, Life of Brian. An agnostic who became a Catholic, a socialist who became a hard-right conservative, he remains out of print.