BOOK REVIEW / Life under the Soviets, with no anaesthetic: Fifty Russian Winters - Margaret Wettlin: John Wiley, pounds 9.95

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The Independent Online
WHEN Bertrand Russell went to the Soviet Union in the early summer of 1920 he did so in a spirit of great enthusiasm and curiosity. He came back saddened and bitter. The Bolsheviks, he said, were neither pacifists nor socialists, but tyrants busy creating a regime as oppressive as a 'cope of lead'. The fervour with which he denounced them cost him the friendship not just of the Webbs, but that of Clifford Allen, his closest wartime pacifist companion. It is hard now to remember either the strength and passion of those who saw in the Russian Revolution a model for a more just future, or how very long it took them to recognise its brutality.

Margaret Wettlin was born in Newark, New Jersey. Hit by the Depression of the late Twenties, her family foundered. It was in hope of finding a fairer and more hopeful society that Margaret set off in September 1932 for the Soviet Union. And there she stayed. Fifty Russian Winters is about her work as a teacher and translator and her marriage to a theatre director called Andrei Efremoff; it is also the story of her growing disenchantment with Soviet life. Some of her most vivid portraits are those of other idealistic foreigners floating uneasily around the pre-war Soviet Union, believing in its revolutionary credo long after its destructiveness was clear.

Married life began in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, where Andrei, a disciple of Stanislavsky, was training actors for a national theatre. She caught typhoid, became pregnant and underwent some gruesome medical experiences without anaesthetic. Like Margaret, Andrei was working for the promise of a 'better design for life'. Their conviction that it would all turn out for the best sustained them both through the terrifying purges of the late Thirties - at one point Margaret became an informer for the KGB - as colleagues and friends were branded enemies of the people, lost their jobs, and diaappeared into Stalin's gulags. A vast, sinister, counter-revolutionary web, they were told, was seeking to undermine the foundations of the new state. For a very long time they believed it. Margaret Wettlin even went back on a visit to America, where she gave lectures about life in the Soviet Union, convinced that she, too, could play a part in reconciling east and west.

The German invasion of 1941 caught the Soviet Union unprepared. Andrei and Margaret joined the millions of refugees, travelling extraordinary distances with their two small children in search of safety. The most enduring images of Fifty Russian Winters are of trains: crammed, erratic, slow, full of terrified people and their stories of horror.

Margaret Wettlin and her family survived the pre-war purges, the bombs, and Stalin's post-war arrests, which saw friends and colleagues and even their wives and children once again picked up and sent to Siberia. But her commitment to Russian Communism did not survive. Briefly persuaded by the KGB to inform for them once more after the war she, like Russell, became sickened by what she saw was happening. The tone of Fifty Russian Winters is not so much sad as resigned. In places both overwritten and curiously passionless, it is at its best when dealing with small scale battles - to eat, endure, remain sane, even be happy - against enormous outside forces. Like many books about survival in turbulent times, it says much about the resilience of the human spirit, and the importance of small things when the larger are too big and too terrifying to deal with.

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