Journalist Geneviève Tabouis: Soviet Funding and Influence

A 1965 documentary shows her: a very dignified lady, first in front of her microphone, then in a bourgeois living room, with an impeccable white chignon, glasses and a quadruple pearl necklace. The voice is firm, the diction perfect, quite theatrical. For more than thirty years, Geneviève Tabouis, 73 years old, had been a well-known journalist specializing in foreign politics. She had also received monthly subsidies from the USSR embassy, in 1935 and perhaps longer.

One book tackled this issue head on — Geneviève Tabouis. Les dernières nouvelles de demain (1892-1985), by Denis Maréchal (Nouveau monde éditions, 2003) — and it is based on archives published by Sabine Dullin in Des hommes d’influence. Les ambassadeurs de Staline en Europe, 1930-1939 (Payot, 2001). Today, when foreign states are trying to develop their influence in the West, including by manipulating local sources of information, it is interesting to reread these books and to complete them with others, including the seminal work of Thierry Wolton, the book by Iryna Dmytrychyn, Le Voyage de Monsieur Herriot. Un épisode de la Grande Famine en Ukraine (L’Harmattan, 2018), and, of course, Geneviève Tabouis’s memories, including Ils l’ont appelée Cassandre (New York, “Voix de France,” 1942) and Vingt ans de “suspense” diplomatique (Albin Michel, 1958), where what is not mentioned is at least as interesting as what is mentioned.

Money paid each month by the embassy

With archives to back it up, Sabine Dullin demonstrated that, in the 1930s, Soviet diplomats had secret funds, intended to influence the Western press. Particularly well endowed, the Soviet embassy in Paris redistributed in 1935 a little more than 110,000 francs each month: 96,000 for periodicals – including 41,600 francs for Le Temps and 10,000 for L’œuvre – and 17,000 francs shared between four journalists, including Romain Rolland and Geneviève Tabouis, who each received 5,000 francs per month. The average salary of a worker at the time was 7,538 francs a year, and that of a university professor at the end of his or her career, 7,000 francs a month.

Why did the Soviet embassy choose Geneviève Tabouis (1892-1985), who, educated in the Assumption convent, lived in a very privileged environment? First of all, she was in charge of a foreign policy column in the Parisian daily L’œuvre, and would keep this column until her forced departure for the United States in 1940. She therefore had an influence on the way the international situation was perceived in France. In addition, she had extremely good connections in diplomatic circles through her two ambassador uncles, Jules and Paul Cambon, and was also close to Edouard Herriot, a central figure in the French Third Republic. Looking for information and rumors, Tabouis organized weekly lunches where she gathered the political and diplomatic “Tout-Paris” and invited Soviet diplomats, giving them thus the possibility to establish contacts in an unofficial setting. In 1916 she had married Robert Tabouis, who was having a brilliant career in private broadcasting. In the 1950s, he became a director of Radio Luxembourg, where his wife had regular, even daily, foreign policy chronicles until 1980.

Did Tabouis receive Soviet money after 1935? For the time being, there are no records to prove it, but in 1937, Maxim Litvinov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the USSR, wrote to Stalin that in France, more than anywhere else, one could “acquire influence over all newspapers, and even over newspapers as hostile to us as Le Matin“: “The only problem is money.”

According to Denis Maréchal, the embassy expected, in exchange for its subsidies, “articles, if not favorable, at least devoid of hostility towards the Soviet Union.” The biographer considers that Tabouis developed, throughout her career, a positive image of the Soviet Union, and he gives, as example of a “counterpart”, an article in which the journalist celebrated the Franco-Soviet pact of May 3, 1935, a pact that, according to her, “guarantee[d] the peace in the world”. Yes, she was not very perceptive… But some of her articles suited the embassy so well that they were reprinted in the Soviet press, before and after the war.

The Soviet embassy also wanted to facilitate the access of its diplomats and journalists to relevant sources of information on French political developments. With her network, lunches, and social events, Tabouis seemed promising, even if Litvinov did not trust very much what she was saying. The Soviet embassy also seems to have used the journalist to launch a press campaign against Pierre Laval in 1935 and thus contribute to his (temporary) downfall. The paid sums thus provoked some changes in the French political life.

But why did Geneviève Tabouis accept to receive financing from a foreign power? After all, she had a comfortable income, and her husband even more, and she did not set up the Soviet political system as a model. The first remark is that, although the journalist presents herself in her memoirs as a French patriot, there was no ethical barrier to prevent her from accepting this money in secret. For the rest, only hypotheses are possible. Did Tabouis think that she could access exclusive information, thanks to a privileged relationship with Soviet diplomats? Moreover, it seems that she herself paid informants for scoops, which may have helped her to perceive these money flows as a kind of harmless norm, especially in the context of the 1930s, and not as a purchase of loyalty. Having additional sources and funds might also have allowed her to strengthen her position as a journalist, and here we are talking about status and symbolic capital: professional success.

Did she also believe that by developing her networks in the East she could influence international politics? Tabouis absolutely rejected Hitler and, more generally, Germany, and her uncle Jules Cambon considered that “if France [wanted] to fight against a great Germany, the alliance in the East [was] indispensable”, such an alliance being the result of “eternal laws”. In 1933 he stated: “I don’t want to know the Soviets, and I am glad to be old enough never to have to shake hands with their representatives. But if I were in power, I would try any kind of rapprochement with Russia.”

Yet, even in 1933, even against Hitler, did it make sense to choose for ally a state that massacred, deported and starved its people? And why did not Tabouis protest against the German-Soviet pact?

Geneviève Tabouis // Archives Nationales

Several stays in the USSR

Geneviève Tabouis knew the USSR. In 1945, she said that she had met the future ambassador Konstantin Oumanski in Moscow in 1922, which is all the more curious as she did not mention such a trip in her memoirs of 1942 where she claimed to have spent this period, sick and bedridden. Can this possible trip, at a time when few Westerners went to Soviet Russia, be partially explained by the stay of her husband’s uncle, General Georges-Antoine-Marie Tabouis, in Ukraine? Between October 1917 and March 1918, General Tabouis represented France in Ukraine and, in his memories of 1931, he does not hide, according to the Franco-Ukrainian journalist Alla Lazareva, neither his antipathy for the Bolsheviks, nor his sympathy for the struggle led by some Ukrainians to have their own state.

In 1933, Geneviève Tabouis joined Herriot in the USSR: it was the famous trip to Ukraine, then devastated by a famine that the French visitors pretended not to have noticed. In L’œuvre, the journalist even evoked the “always beautiful” harvest in Ukraine and praised the Soviet constructions, among which “the new prisons of the regime, where the prisoners have one day of freedom per week and fifteen days of vacations per year”. But Iryna Dmytrychyn, in her book about this trip, questions whether Tabouis really left Moscow to go to Ukraine, and she demonstrates that Herriot did see the famine and chose not to talk about it.

Tabouis also decided not to say everything that she had observed. As she later would admit, she then intended to show that “the Russian card was of an inestimable value for France”; therefore, she wanted to have for “policy” to “try to work again in favor of the collective security that a true Franco-Russian pact could perhaps still make possible in Europe”. But she was not fooled by the quality of life in the USSR and, after this stay, confided to a colleague, “It is an abominable country, where everyone works under the knout, where there is never a minute of isolation, never a secret for human life, in any respect.” In 1942, she would admit that “Moscow was very sad then”: “People dressed poorly on the whole and were standing in endless queues to get oil or bread.”

Tabouis returned to the USSR in May 1935, when the Franco-Soviet pact was being negotiated, and she claimed that Moscow had “much changed in the last two years”: “The queues in front of the food stores had disappeared, […] and one could even distinguish a certain elegance among the women.” Needless to say, when Tabouis published these lines in 1942, she did not mention the sums paid each month by the Soviet embassy…

One thing is striking: the journalist wrote almost exclusively of “Russia” and “Russians”, and very rarely of the USSR and Soviets. She thus did not give herself the words to mention the other peoples in the USSR, nor the rupture between imperial Russia and the USSR. Moreover, recalling in her memories of 1942 that second half of the 1930s, she noted that, “as [her] columns in L’œuvre became more interesting,” “leaders of the cause of freedom in various countries” contacted her, including Serbs, Poles and Hungarians, who told her of “the new oppression that German propaganda was establishing in their countries”. She continued, “But also, on the other hand, how many hours were wasted listening to the grievances of this or that delegate, of this or that Hindu, Ukrainian, Georgian separatist cause, […].” The oppression of peoples seems to have been, for her, only German, and certainly not Soviet.

And in her American memories of 1945, Tabouis put Roosevelt and Stalin on the same level, and showed that she had not grasped the extent of the purges carried out by the Party against the Soviet peoples. She even justified these purges: they were meant to remove the “obstacles to the evolution of the Russian masses towards a better future”. But it was the Americans she described as freedom loving: a turning point seems to have occurred during her exile in the United States.

In March 1947, the journalist accompanied the French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault to the five-week Moscow Conference. Following this trip, she gave a lecture at the Théâtre Marigny, where she spoke of “Russian expansionism in Europe and the East” and emphasized the “American decision to stop all Russian political and social expansion”. Therefore, she pointed out that France had just signed an agreement with Washington and London: “From now on, our country will always find itself under the supervision of Washington and London when any German problem, in fact any problem of international politics, is discussed”. The “eternal laws” of Uncle Cambon seemed no more valid…

Especially since Tabouis, although amazed by the comfort and services in the Hotel Moskva, had noticed the strong social and material inequalities among the Soviet people: some official artists were millionaires, while many of their compatriots lived in poverty. She nevertheless claimed that “all [were] united in a common ardor for the recovery of the country…, in an unshakeable faith in the destinies of the Soviet republics.”

Stereotypes on the “Russians” and manipulations by Otto Katz

Contrary to some communist travelers, Geneviève Tabouis did not idealize life in the USSR, but she perceived the “Russians” as fundamentally different from Westerners and, let’s say it, inferior. In 1933, she estimated that “human values” were “absolutely not of the same importance” in the USSR as in the West, which she explained by the fact that “at least a hundred million” of the “170 million Russians” were “still quite primitive”.

In 1947, she assured that in Russia, “one always had the impression of having been transported to another planet”. For her, the Frenchman “in the street is right, when, reading what is happening to [their] Russian allies, he shakes his head and says: ‘Yes, yes…, it’s good for there, but it wouldn’t work here, Russia is another world’.” She considered that Soviet power was striving “to raise the intellectual level of 200 million people to the level of those in other countries.” From then on, while pointing out the attacks launched in 1946 against Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko, while speaking of the “dictatorship of thought,” while evoking the constant surveillance exercised by the NKVD and the instrumentalization by the State of an Orthodox Church that was once again tolerated, the journalist considered that “the deprivation of individual freedom, which none of us could bear, did not cause the slightest discomfort to the majority of Soviet citizens.”

Isn’t this the real “Russophobia” — a word so frequently used nowadays in some circles? In this conviction that “the Russians” are condemned, ad vitam aeternam, to the “knout” and to the deprivations of freedom? And is not Geneviève Tabouis one of those who have, not created, but rooted this conception in France?

To come back to the reasons why Mrs. Tabouis accepted payments from the Soviet State, Denis Maréchal evokes other tracks: may-be, the journalist was used by the French secret services or was “held” by an adulterous sentimental affair. Above all, she was in regular contact with Otto Katz (1895-1952), one of the most active Comintern agents in Western Europe. Embassies were not the only Soviet structures to manipulate Westerners.

It would take too long to recount Otto Katz’s career and the countless missions he was entrusted with, in Germany, France, Spain, Great Britain, the United States, Mexico and elsewhere. Jonathan Miles’ biography, The Nine Lives of Otto Katz (Transworld books, 2010), gives an idea of the importance that this attractive Bohemian-born man had within the Comintern. And it is also because of her links with Otto Katz that Geneviève Tabouis was watched by the FBI for years. This did not prevent her from becoming close to Eleanor Roosevelt during the war, while frequenting the Soviet embassy.

In 1952, when Otto Katz was judged and sentenced to death in Prague — the Stalinist purges were also hitting the new “Eastern bloc” — he underlined, in a letter to the Czechoslovak president, the positions taken by Geneviève Tabouis under his direct influence. But, in her various books, she does not seem to have mentioned, either Otto Katz or his end.

In that year 1952, the journalist was still exactly on the Soviet line in campaigning against the EDC, the European Defense Community. One of her close collaborators, André Ulmann (1917-1970), founder of La Tribune des nations, was also engaged in this struggle. However, the Mitrokhine archives show that Ulmann had been recruited in 1946 by Soviet intelligence services and that these services financed his Tribune des nations in order to influence Western decision-makers. Money was still flowing.

Geneviève Tabouis worked as a journalist almost until her death.

Political scientist, historian, Slavic studies specialist, professor at the University of Rennes II, director of the Russian department at Rennes II, and researcher at CERCLE (Nancy II). She primarily focuses on power-society-culture relations in 20th and 21st-century Russia and issues of influence from 1920 to the present. Her recent works include Le Clan Mikhalkov. Culture et pouvoirs en Russie (1917-2017) published by Presses universitaires de Rennes in 2019, Les Réseaux du Kremlin en France published by Les Petits Matins in 2016, and La Fabrique de l’homme nouveau après Staline. Les arts et la culture dans le projet soviétique published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes in 2016.

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