LEOPOLD LABEDZ was one of the unsung heroes of the fight against Communist totalitarianism. Yet he was also one of the most charming and funny men you could hope to meet. Nothing in his eventful life would seem to warrant his dauntless good humour and the smile that never left his face.
He was born into the maelstrom of the Russian civil war, while his father, a Polish Jewish doctor, was trying to make his way back to Poland. The family managed to struggle back to Warsaw, where the father rapidly established a practice much favoured by elegant society. Leo was a precocious child, finishing all his schools ahead of his contemporaries and graduating from Warsaw University at the age of 18. He then set off to pursue his studies at the Sorbonne. He returned to Poland for the summer holidays in 1939, and was caught there by the outbreak of war. Fleeing from the Nazis, he was arrested by the Soviets and deported to Siberia, where he spent the next three years.
He was released in 1942 as a result of the Polish-Soviet pact, and joined General Anders's army, with which he crossed over to Persia. He served in the Polish Second Corps throughout its campaigns in Palestine, Egypt and Italy. By the end of the war, he was the only surviving member of his family, which had been murdered in equal measure by the Nazis and the Soviets.
On being demobilised, he spent a year studying at the University of Bologna, three at London University, and then another seven at the London School of Economics. He was by then a formidably qualified and renowned Sovietologist, and he devoted himself to combating the evil of the totalitarianism of which he had had first-hand experience, both in its Nazi and its Soviet guises. In 1961 he founded from London the remarkable and influential quarterly Survey, which he edited for the next 25 years. This did not interfere with the writing of half a dozen weighty books and a string of articles, and the organisation of numerous conferences and symposia.
The tiny, round-faced, bald man, with his huge, impish eyes, was variously described as a terrier or a rubber ball, and there is something in both of these descriptions; he never let go, and he inexorably bounced back with irrefutable arguments to confound anyone unwise enough to think they knew better. He was a passionate champion of truth and an implacable foe of all intellectuals who disregard facts and all politicians who disregard people in the pursuit of high-sounding theory and ideological myth.
Labedz was intimidated neither by established reputations nor apparent learning, as his demolition-jobs on those of Isaac Deutscher and EH Carr demonstrate. It was with the same fearlessness that he defended the true meaning of George Orwell's work against the distortions so fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s, earning himself a string of epithets from established academic humbugs. He made a remarkable number of enemies in his crusading life, but they learnt to refrain from sparring with him, as they inevitably came off the worse for it.
Passionately committed as he was, Labedz never allowed feeling or imagination to cloud his own judgement. The elegance of expression which characterised his writings was the result of his crystalline logic and his respect for the meaning of language - in this, as in many things, he was a spiritual heir of Orwell. He was one of those naturalised Britons who love their adopted motherland more than most natives, and he loved the English language and prized its clarity. He abhorred corrupt use of language almost as much as dishonesty.
His personal life continued to be beset by misfortune. A marriage to an Englishwoman turned sour, although it left him a greatly cherished daughter. In the mid-1980s he fought a losing battle against his diabetes, and finally had to have both legs amputated. Yet none of this dented his spirit or his good humour, and he remained a delightful companion to the end. He had the satisfaction of seeing his own arguments vindicated and the opinions and writings of his opponents trashed by history in the late 1980s.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content