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Obituary: Paul Thorez

Paul Thorez, writer, social worker; born Moscow 1940; died Castanet, Tarn-et-Garonne 28 June 1994.

THE STORY used to be told of a school in the eastern suburbs of Paris. A boy presented himself to the Director in an obvious state of anxiety, but was reluctant to explain what was troubling him. Finally he said, 'C'est le petit Thorez.' 'What about him?' asked the Director. 'They say he's the son of the Pope' came the nervous reply. And so he was. Throughout his life Paul Thorez had to carry the responsibility of being the son of Maurice Thorez, the all-powerful leader of the French Communist Party from 1931 until his death in 1964. For party followers he was an infallible figure. As Paul grew up this embarrassment was heightened by the fact that he physically resembled his father.

Maurice Thorez had early married Aurore Memboeuf, the niece of a powerful Communist leader in the Pas-de-Calais, but in the course of 1934 he began to live with a more militant party activist, Jeanette Vermeersch. It was she who organised the secret journey from his army unit which brought him to Moscow in 1939, and it was in Moscow that her second son, Paul, was born, taking his father's name. (His mother and father legalised their union in 1947, a third son, Pierre, having been born in Paris in 1946.)

Paul Thorez was brought up speaking both French and Russian. Although he went to school in the Paris region, he spent his holidays in the Soviet Union; his father then spent long periods of time there after suffering a stroke in 1950 and becoming a close friend of Nikita Khrushchev during his last years. Paul's memories were of long summers in the region of the Black Sea, playing with the privileged children of the Soviet ruling class.

But the happiness of childhood and youth was undermined by his realisation that the regime he was brought up to idolise was seriously flawed. He made the acquaintance of writers and artists who went in fear of the regime, and he helped them to get their works out of the Soviet Union. He was also forced to discover that much of the legend centred around his father was not true, and that the French Communist Party playing the role of the eldest daughter of the Moscow Church was not always a noble activity.

These discoveries led him into conflict with Moscow - he was not allowed to visit Russia after 1970 - and into disagreements with members of his family. Out of the sadness and the bitterness of his experiences came a desire to help people, and he worked in institutions for the mentally handicapped. He was the author of two finely written autobiographical books, Les Enfants modeles (1982) and Une Voix presque nienne (1985).