Chance encounter that led to torture and Siberian work camps
A Ukrainian Jew, now settled in Israel, recalls his friendship with British soldiers in Stalin's Soviet Union
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Monday 30 June 1997
"We became friends and met several times at the hotel where they were staying," says Mr Shandalov. "On parting they left me a note: `We, two Englishmen, are very glad to have met you. We hope that our friendship will be everlasting. Long live Churchill! Long live Marshal Stalin! Fred and Jim.'"
Half a century later in his apartment in Haifa in Israel, Mr Shandalov, a short, courteous man speaking perfect, slightly literary English, recalls sadly, but without visible bitterness, how his chance meeting with Fred and Jim ruined his life. He says: "It never occurred to me, a naive youth, that a contact with allies might be considered a crime by the Soviet state security."
But within five years the Cold War was in full swing. Any contact with foreigners was suspicious. The hotel staff had monitored and reported on the meetings between the Soviet student with an enthusiasm for Dickens, Fielding and Wordsworth and two foreign soldiers. Just as Mr Shandalov was about to write his diploma essay on George Bernard Shaw's The Chocolate Soldier in 1950 he was arrested by the security police, jailed, tortured, given a half-hour trial and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment as a British spy.
Seldom can anglophilia have had such catastrophic results. Mr Shandalov has a very complete memory of how it all happened. Born a Jew in the western Soviet Union in 1928, he was evacuated with his family to the Urals at the start of the war. They returned in 1944 after the German retreat. He says that James Logie and Frederick Grace told him they were part of the British Military Mission in Moscow. He says: "We talked about what was happening on the battle-front, drank and sang songs." He hums a tune from Noel Coward's London Lights.
Mr Shandalov never saw the two sergeants again. He wrote letters, but received no replies and assumes they were intercepted. Partly as a result of his meeting, "I resolved to master English and eventually to defect to the UK. I entered with difficulty Lvov university". He thinks that at first the MVD security police (later renamed the KGB) may not have thought it worth detaining him, but with the onset of the Korean War there was a wave of arrests. Later, in prison, he met a lawyer serving 10 years because he comforted a client, whose son was about to go to jail, by saying: "Don't be afraid. In prison now there are many decent people."
A few days before he was arrested he received a mysterious phone call from an unknown woman who said "a friend of hers, an American journalist called Goldberg, was coming to Lvov and I should go to meet him at the airport. Of course I had no intention of doing so. I knew how dangerous it was to meet an American. But I had a foreboding something awful was going to happen."
On 4 August 1950, two MVD officers arrived at his parents' flat where he was living and searched it. Mr Shandalov says: "They took me to the local MVD headquarters. The interrogation lasted three days and nights. I was beaten black and blue. They asked me how I became a British spy." On the third day he was taken to a jail with a fearful reputation in Lonsky street in Lvov. At first he was in solitary confinement, but was then moved to a small cell with 70 men in it. "To turn over at night one of the inmates used to give a command," he says. "The only toilet was a big pot."
Interrogations were held at night only, but prisoners were forbidden to sleep during the day. Mr Shandalov says: "If you don't sleep for three or four days they can do what they want with you. My first day's interrogation was on my 22nd birthday. They beat me with a rubber hose."
After 11 months in Lonsky street he was brought to trial before a military tribunal charged with treason, espionage for the British intelligence service and anti-Soviet agitation. His parents had, with great difficulty, found him a lawyer, but his speech for the defence was even more hostile than the prosecution. Mr Shandalov had, in any case, already signed a full confession under torture. He received a sentence of 25 years in prison and five years deprivation of civil rights.
Mr Shandalov just survived the next few years of work camps in Siberia. News reached the camp slowly. In 1952 an officer stopped in front of him and a group of prisoners and said: "Today at 5am Comrade Stalin passed away." But it was four years before he was released. There were small signs of change. In 1956 the camp chief and his staff sat down with the prisoners for New Year's dinner. Soon afterwards he was freed.
Even then life was not easy. He says: "I could not get a job. As a former political prisoner I had been turned down wherever I applied. I was constantly under KGB surveillance." At one moment he was given 24 hours to clear out of Lvov. He thinks he may have made a mistake in not returning to Siberia, which was full of former political prisoners. He worked at a design firm and a research centre, keeping a low profile. In 1990 he and his wife Emilia took advantage of the new freedom for Jews to emigrate to move to Israel, but at 68 he finds it difficult to get a job or afford his flat in Haifa. "Unfortunately we have not found a haven in this country," he says. "We are desperately unhappy here."
Out of curiosity Mr Shandalov has resumed his search for James Logie and Frederick Grace, writing letters to the BBC and the Ministry of Defence. The reply from the ministry notes petulantly that he had not supplied enough information "to enable us to find the right service documents among the many millions we hold". Nevertheless, he still feels an urge to find out everything about the chance encounter in Lvov which determined the rest of his life.
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