"There have been dark days and dark nights; I remember them all, each and every one. Dark times for a small green planet, a speck that has offended no one but God, that did not deserve this unspeakable century. What could I do but chase the sun? I am a migratory bird." Bron Crawford lived his life on the margins of history and in the borderlands of fame. Obscure by choice and necessity, he was one of the bit-players in the political and cultural events of the century. A poet and a hack journalist, sometime pimp, engineer, down-and-out, actor and inept spy, Crawford witnessed the 20th century as it unfolded. 'He changed his name," writes Ian Bell, "as often as the city of his birth changed its name. First the town was St Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad and then, at last, as though a century of smoke had cleared, St Petersburg once again. Peter's City, cradling the Neva river, was an illusion born of white nights, war and verbal magic, slipping in and out of focus. Bron Crawford, an actor by instinct, was no different." Born Boris Afanasievich Kirilov, the son of a professor of philology, Crawford fled Russia soon after the Revolution, changing his name at every border.
In Berlin he fell in with a young radical later to be known as B. Traven. In Paris he watched from the fringes while surrealism blossomed. During the Spanish Civil War he was an intimate of the enigmatic Frank Ryan and, briefly, a political commissar. In America he saw both the misery of the dustbowls and the gaudy glories of Hollywood before McCarthyism. In France, where he died, he began (or resumed) a strange friendship with a military attache at the Soviet embassy. Crawford remains a little-known figure, yet four marriages, as many names and ceaseless travelling made him a key witness to the fall, as he saw it, of the west. His life, he once said, was like the sound of someone whistling in the dark: "But only I hear the tune." Based on Crawford's diaries and letters, this account of an extraordinary career also draws on newly opened Soviet archives, the files of the Literary Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and the reminiscences of friends and enemies alike in Europe and America. Written with the assistance of Crawford's daughter, Mms Nadia Sapin, it gives an insight into the events of a tumultuous century.
Ian Bell is author of "Dreams of Exile", a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson.