UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

Rosa Rust seemed set for a normal English childhood until her father, a leading Communist, took her to the Soviet Union, where a chain of accidents saw her separated from her family and caught up in Stalin's forced migrations
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ROSA AND GEORGE Thornton have lived in or near the small seaside town of Redcar for the last three decades. George, a retired civil servant with a neat moustache, is slim and smartly-dressed. Rosa is shorter, but heavily-built, and seems to be the more flamboyant of the two. He is in his seventies; she will be 70 this year. They look like an ordinary couple, but a cheerful one. For 20 years, they were mainstays of the local drama group. They like to recite poetry, to play music, to walk by the sea, and to talk of cricket and of their four grown-up children and four grandchildren; George in his dry, quietly humorous voice, Rosa with great, gay gusts of poetry and laughter, with a slight accent which sounds east European. The grandchildren call Rosa Babu, for babushka, the Russian for grandmother. In the summer the couple generally take a package holiday to Bulgaria, where Rosa can use her Russian. She would love to show St Petersburg to George, but their pensions don't stretch to it.

Yet although Rosa still thinks of herself as a foreigner, she is not Russian, nor even foreign. She was born in London, in 1925. Her father, Bill Rust, had spent a harsh, undernourished childhood in London's east end. When Rosa was born he was 22, and leader of the Young Communist League. He named his daughter after the German Communist Rosa Luxemburg.

A few weeks after her birth, police raided the Communist Party's Covent Garden offices and arrested 12 leading Communists, including Bill. He was charged with seditious libel and incitement to mutiny and went to prison for a year, conveniently keeping him out of circulation during the 1926 general strike. When Rust's Irish wife visited him in Wandsworth Prison, Rosa took her first steps on the table which separated the couple.

When Rosa was three, Bill Rust took a decision which changed her life. He went with his wife and baby to Moscow, to work for the Communist International, the Comintern. Bill was tall and plump and a little grim. Few people saw him smile, or knew what made him tick, but he was a determined Communist whose faith was probably rooted in the hardships and injustices of his childhood. He was able and alert, but not likeable. A colleague later described him as "round and pink and cold as ice."

In Moscow Bill became one of the Comintern's most loyal functionaries. At the 1928 Comintern Congress he attacked his colleagues in the British Communist Party for hesitating to obey the latest Comintern edict. The Comintern wanted them to end their overtures to the Labour Party and adopt a policy of unremitting hostility. Some British Communists doubted the wisdom of this. Moscow and Rust forced them into line.

Rosa, meanwhile, had developed scarlet fever in Moscow, and when she came out of hospital she had forgotten most of her English. For the next 16 years she spoke only Russian.

IN 1930, when Rosa was five, Bill returned to London to become the first editor of the Daily Worker, the Communist daily newspaper. His marriage had fallen apart, and Rosa stayed behind in the Soviet Union with her mother. Rust and his wife were sure that the Soviet system was the finest in the world, and that it would provide safety and the best possible education for Rosa.

Rosa was sent to a boarding school for the children of top foreign Communists a few miles from Moscow in Ivanovo-Vosnesensk. It was, she says, "a super school, equivalent to the best English public school, with skating and skiing thrown in. Such beautiful surroundings." Its pupils included the children of the future Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito, of the future Hungarian leader Matyas Rakosi, and of China's Mao Tse Tung. For all the privilege, though, the harsher realities of Soviet life did occasionally intrude. At the age of eight she was back in hospital to have her tonsils out, without anaesthetic. "In the Soviet Union they just open your mouth and out come your tonsils," she says. "Tonsils and adenoids. A big woman, apron over her because of blood, she got me on her lap like that [she indicates arms firmly pinioned behind her] and held me. When they cut your flesh with a knife in a very sensitive part of your body, it hurts, I tell you, it hurts. I remember the pain. And the blood! There was so much blood."

IN 1937, Rosa's mother returned to England, at 24 hours' notice. Moscow was desperately unsafe for foreign Communists just then. Stalin's purges, in which many millions died, were well under way, and several foreign Communist leaders had taken refuge in Moscow when their party was declared illegal at home, only to find death in a Soviet prison. A prominent British Communist, Rose Cohen, was shot that year. Rosa's mother had reason to believe that she might be next.

She promised Rosa she would come back soon. But when she reached England, Bill suggested that their daughter would be better off remaining in the Soviet Union, and she hesitated. War was declared in 1939, and she felt that her daughter would be better off in a country which was not at war. Then, once the Soviet Union entered the war, travel between the two countries became impossible. But even then she was sure that Rosa would be safe in Ivanovo-Vosnesensk. And if Rosa had stayed in Ivanovo-Vosnesensk, she would have been.

But pupils had to leave the school at 15, and in 1940 Rosa was sent, without her parents' knowledge, to Moscow, to a hostel for political immigrants. "A beautiful house. But it was run by a woman called Sophia Petrovna. She was awful. Like Mrs Thatcher, you know, that type." Even so, Rosa loved her time in Moscow. She had no idea of the horrors ahead. There were dozens of other former Ivanovo-Vosnesensk pupils living in the hostel. They went to a Party-approved school in the mornings, and in the evenings to the theatre or cinema, or a concert.

Stalin had kept the Soviet Union out of the war by signing a pact with Hitler. Then, without warning, on 22 June 1941, Germany attacked. "One morning in summer, it was a Sunday, they said there was going to be an announcement. I didn't take any notice, but the next day I went out and all the shops were empty. Everybody started buying everything they could lay their hands on and the shops were stripped of everything. A month later Moscow was bombed. They were flying so low I could see the bombs, coming down and destroying everything." But it did mean that she got to see the splendid bomb shelters, the wine cellars of the Tsars. "Those wine cellars were built to last. German bombs could not destroy those."

Rosa had done badly in her exams, and Sophia Petrovna punished her by keeping her in Moscow while the other 50 or so teenagers from the hostel went on holiday. If she had gone on that holiday with her friends she would have been spared the horrors of Stalin's labour camps, because while the others were away, the Comintern gave instructions that the children should be returned to the safety of Ivanovo-Vosnesensk. Foreign Communists had important work to do in wartime. Moscow did not want them worrying about whether their children were safe.

Sophia Petrovna, who had not taken at all to the carefree and rather wilful girl, did not tell anyone why Rosa was not with the rest. So Rosa was told to join, instead, a group of German exiles who were going to be doing something for the war effort, "not just sitting here in Moscow, doing nothing." With the world of contempt she gets into the word "nothing", Rosa sounds very Russian. "So my father and mother assumed I was somewhere safe," she adds. "And I wasn't."

IN LONDON, Bill Rust was back at his old desk at the Daily Worker. He had resigned the editorship in 1932 in order to work at Communist Party headquarters, but returned to the job in 1939 after a later incumbent, John Ross Campbell, could not bring himself to defend Stalin's pact with Hitler, or to obey the consequent order from Moscow to denounce Britain's war effort. Bill firmly believed that Moscow knew best. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he did a second somersault and supported the war. He was now recognised as one of the most able people Britain's Communist Party possessed, and one of the two or three stoutest defenders the Soviet Union had in Britain. The Red Army's contribution to the war effort, and the enormous casualties it suffered, helped make the Communist Party popular and respectable. Bill shared platforms with leading Conservatives, and Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt had frequent meetings with Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Aircraft Production, and travelled the country quelling strikes.

Rosa, meanwhile, far from being safe, had been sent with her group of German exiles to the Volga German republic, near the front, where they were set to work at a variety of back-breaking jobs. The small town beside the Volga seemed to be a desert. "I couldn't see any trees or anything, it was all sand. There were fleas in the sand, they attacked your legs. It was windy. Locals used to wear like a chiffon scarf across their faces so the sand wouldn't go into their eyes.

"I made friends with a German woman who was about my mother's age, called Hannah. She was one of those miniature, lightweight, lovely Jewish women. She used to say" - and Rosa, who is a natural mimic, imitates the low, gentle, loving voice - "Rosa, liebchen, liebchen." Rosa looked after Hannah "because I was strong, you know. Hannah was very weak physically, she only weighed about 7st, she smoked this rough tobacco called Mahourka, they usually smoked it in newspaper." The two women found a deserted house to shelter in, and the 16-year-old girl was put to work doing 12-hour shifts in a canning factory. Hannah stayed in the house and looked after her - "like my mother" says Rosa.

AFTER THREE months, Rosa came home one day exhausted after her shift and Hannah looked at her with frightened eyes. She had had a visit from the militia. All Germans must leave the area. They had 48 hours to pack. Rosa was terrified of being left in that appalling place alone and went to the railway station.

"They said, `You know this is the Volga German Republic?' I didn't realise. I knew there were a lot of funny people in the village who spoke this peculiar language. They speak very strange German anyway, sort of Catherine the Great German. Germans do not understand them at all."

Rosa had stumbled on one of Stalin's great crimes - the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Volga Germans, thrown out of their homes and sent to the far corners of the vast country. A decree of 18 August 1941 ordered the deportation of the Germans who had lived by the Volga since the time of Catherine the Great, accusing them of being traitors and preparing to sell out the Soviet Union to Hitler. The deportation began the next month. Many have never been heard of since.

Rosa pretended to be a German, and went with her new friends. "We went on horse and cart, maybe a day and a half, and arrived at Astrakhan. That was the meeting point of all the Germans who were going to be deported. Suddenly there were thousands of them. Thousands! You know the refugee syndrome, this sad group, all their possessions on their backs, loaded down like animals, with that cowed look because the soldiers spoke roughly to them and called them bloody Germans."

Rosa and Hannah were put on to a boat. When that was full the rest of the refugees were put in a big open barge which was towed by the boat for a three-day journey along the Caspian Sea. Rosa says: "When you are young you are resilient, you can't dwell too long on what is happening. Children have to concentrate on something pleasant or they cannot survive. I found a lot of young boys and girls and we became friends. They said they lived in some village where they had a farm, and some men in uniform came and said, you have to leave. I said, did they tell you why? Are you Germans? Well, yes, I think so, we're called Volga Germans. Do you speak German? No, my grandfather does. How does your mother feel? She's crying all the time..."

When the boat landed, they were all taken to a railway station at a town called Guryev. "It was like a big junction, engines whistling, dirty and noisy, lots of cattle-trucks. I thought: oh my God, where am I going? There were about 15 wagons and they told us to climb in. It was just an open truck, and a shelf, and a bit of straw on the floor. No one told us anything, the train just went.

"We made friends with the driver and said, do you think you could stop every two hours or so somewhere in a field, so we can all go to the toilet? Men went from that side and women went from that side. It was getting more and more disgusting, the conditions became filthier, we all got lice, we always itched. We couldn't wash anywhere. We travelled for six weeks like that."

A young German woman was nursing her four-month-old baby girl. Each time the train stopped she rushed to search for hot water for the baby's feed. One terrible day the train started without her, and Rosa was left holding the baby. "I was 16 and the baby was screaming. We gave her some milk with cold water. She didn't like it very much. Someone had a water melon, and I remember cutting a bit of water melon and her sucking it.

"I remember once washing her in the lake. It was so cold! There were no disposable nappies or anything like that, just some rags, but my friends went to the driver and said, try to stop the train where there is a lake or a bit of water, we've got to wash nappies." She laughs happily as she remembers. "The driver did that because he liked us, because we were cheerful." The mother was frantically hopping from train to train trying to catch up with the refugees. After a week she made it. "The baby was all right, she didn't even get diarrhoea. I was very pleased with myself."

Food was very scarce. "I remember a survivor from Belsen saying, it's not like you feel peckish. This occupies you 24 hours a day, you just think about food all the day, you become dehumanised, you think and breathe food. We were reaching that state."

One day Rosa was made to distribute bread. "I found a group, and said `How many in the family?' They said seven. I could only count six. I said where is the seventh? They said, grandma died. Where's the body? We threw it out. What were we supposed to do with the body in the middle of nowhere? The train was going to travel five hours, seven hours non-stop, we didn't want a dead body stinking it out. Someone said, you should have kept quiet, you could have claimed food for seven people. I remember the look of disbelief on their faces that this young person was asking stupid questions and wasting time when we could be eating.

"I was very young to come across incidents like that. My childhood was disappearing fast. At 16 you still try to remain cheerful. Every time the train stopped I tried to find out what was happening but the militiamen were so full of self-importance, they tell you nothing."

But at last they did stop. Rosa opened a door and said to the others: "I think we've arrived." She saw perhaps 200 carts and horses and asked a militiaman where in Russia they were. The answer startled her. They were not in Russia at all; they were in Kazakhstan. She looked back to her travelling companions. Did any of them know where Kazakhstan was?

They were herded into the carts and travelled along bumpy roads for hours on end, seated on a little wooden ledge. At 3am they came to a village and a militiaman took Rosa and Hannah to a small house. He said to the old woman who came to the door: "Receive. There are two people who are going to live in your house." And he left. The old woman said sleepily to them, "Who are you? What do you want with me?" Rosa said she was sorry, and she was tired, and could they please talk about it in the morning? The militiaman returned in the morning and the old lady tried to explain that her house was full, but he told her; "It's wartime, they're refugees, they've got to live somewhere. They will work, they will give you money, you feed them."

The village was full of lice. Hannah poured petrol on their clothes and burned them. They put paraffin on their hair to get rid of the lice. But for the villagers, lice were part of daily life. Every Friday after they bathed, they would put their head on someone's lap, look for lice, and squash them between a knife and a fingernail. "That was their pastime" says Rosa.

AFTER a few weeks Rosa was moved, without Hannah, to the neighbouring village of Belousovka. And there, while Bill Rust wrote pro-Soviet editorials in London, his 16-year-old daughter was worked almost to death mining copper, 100 miles from the Chinese border. Her job was to push huge, heavy trucks full of copper along rough railway lines and turn them sideways to empty them. She entered the mine every day at 6am and came out after dark. She never saw the sun, nor had enough to eat, nor had any protective clothing.

The worst sign of malnutrition was near-blindness. A woman peddler knocked at her cottage, took one look at her and said: "You need onions." Rosa had neither money nor anything to sell. "I felt so ill, my legs were so swollen. She said, are you sure you haven't anything to sell? Two hours later she brought me a string of onions and said: `Eat them raw or you'll die.' And I got better."

Her body also reacted to being deprived of sunlight. The tiniest cut refused to heal and her skin turned yellow. People were dying around her, and Rosa, though strong and young, knew she could not survive for ever. She had no idea what had happened to her friends from school, but she wrote to one of them, asking that the letter be shown to someone in authority. The friend took it to the principal, and in the spring of 1943 a letter arrived containing a pass signed personally by Georgi Dimitrov, secretary of the Comintern and later the ruler of Bulgaria. The daughter of an important foreign Communist was not to be left to rot as though she was a commoner.

The pass got her past militiamen, but did not get her on to trains. It took weeks to get back to Moscow. At one station she waited for a fortnight while people struggled to get on trains full of soldiers, until at last she managed to get on one unnoticed - "and I sat still and did not breathe, and at last the train started, and I sighed, whoosh."

In Moscow she went to the Hotel Lux, where foreign Communists lived, and met the Daily Worker's John Gibbons. "Bill's been looking for you," he told her. "Do you want to stay here or go to England?" Rosa, who could neither remember England nor speak English, said that she wanted to go to England.

Rosa was taken to see Dimitrov. He looked sombre and ill, but shook her hand with a strong grip. He was glad her ordeal was over, and her parents had been told she was safe, he said. Then a Russian convoy took her to Leith in Scotland, and Foreign Office officials met her, discreetly. With Britain now the ally of the Soviet Union, the Foreign Office and the Communist Party were working secretly in close collaboration. Neither wanted the world to hear that, in Stalin's Soviet Union, innocent people were herded about the country in cattle-trucks and forced to work down copper mines in inhuman conditions.

At Leith Rosa was told to take a train to Edinburgh. "I couldn't read English, and it was crowded and I was standing in the corridor. The station names had been obliterated, and all I could see was an advertisement for Virol, which was some kind of drink. And I thought, this is the third station called Virol. Then suddenly the train stopped. People started moving, and I heard them all muttering this funny word, `skoosme'.

"These two very English people from the Foreign Office, with bowler hats and striped trousers, came towards me and bowed. `Miss Rust?' I said `Da.'"

After a few nights in Edinburgh they put her on a train to London, and her parents met her at King's Cross. "I hadn't seen my father for so long. And they missed me! I was so big, they remembered a little girl. They looked so old!"

Bill Rust was 40. "They had this bunch of flowers. I said what lovely flowers, what are they, my father said `Dafferdiws.' " Rosa's remarkable ear for accents gets her father's cockney tone perfectly. Her mother corrected his pronunciation. " `Thass what I said din I, dafferdiws.' " Rosa says: "Whenever I look at daffodils I can hear my father say dafferdiws."

HER RELATIONSHIP with her father never flowered. She says that it was the same with many of the children who were brought up in the Soviet Union away from their parents. "We went back to our various countries and were introduced to our parents: this is your father and your mother, love them. Like hell you do. You are such very different people. I did not know my father at all. He could not adjust to the idea I was grown up. He was probably suffering from the same thing, this is my daughter, love her."

His daughter's arrival also presented Bill with a problem. Alison Macleod, then a Daily Worker journalist, puts it crisply. "If anyone had described in our office one-tenth of what Rosa lived through, Bill would have denounced these anti-Soviet lies."

Rosa built a new life. A doctor declared her remarkably well, in the circumstances. She learnt English at Regent Street Polytechnic, where she made the welcome discovery that she loved English poetry as much as she loved Pushkin. She worked as a translator for the Soviet news agency Tass until the Foreign Office closed it down in 1951, but never liked her father's Communist Party colleagues. One day in 1949 she telephoned Bill at the Daily Worker and said: "I want to meet you tonight and introduce you to the man I'm going to marry." Bill promised to meet her later at Tottenham Court Road.

It was a busy day for Bill. Furious at newspapers' attacks on the Soviet Union, he had recently published an editorial headlined "FLEET STREET DUNGHEAP", a blistering attack on journalists. That day, after a series of Party meetings, he was due to defend it at a meeting of the Central London branch of the National Union of Journalists, which was outraged. Bill liked a good scrap. But while he was still at a meeting at the Party's headquarters, he murmured that he felt ill, and collapsed. It was a stroke, and he was dead by the time he reached hospital.

"It was a drastic way of avoiding meeting me", George Thornton says today, and smiles his charming, understated English smile.

THERE ARE no records of Rosa's early life. Sometimes she feels as though it was a dream. But she and George go to Bulgaria for their holidays, and 10 years ago she sought out a school friend there.

"It was as though we had never parted. As children we used to play duets together, and he took me to his flat and after about five minutes, we were playing duets together. He said he was gobbled up by the Bulgarian Communist Party, his life was arranged, he never married. There was the confirmation that my life before England did happen, did exist." George says quietly: "I found out who she was."

! Francis Beckett's book, "Enemy Within: the Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party", is published this month by John Murray.

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