Sitting on hard wooden chairs


Sheila Fitzpatrick remembers not being a spy in the Soviet Union in the 1960s @ London Review of Books.

They gathered us in a dark-panelled windowless basement in the Foreign Office for a briefing. The year was 1966, and the group was made up of 20 or so British students selected to go to the Soviet Union for ten months under the auspices of the British Council. Plus one Australian, myself, who had managed to get on the British exchange because Australia didn’t have one. Our nameless briefer, who we assumed to be from MI6, told us that everybody we met in the Soviet Union would be a spy. It would be impossible to make friends with Russians because, in the first place, they were all spies, and, in the second, they would make the same assumption about us. As students, we would be particularly vulnerable to Soviet attempts to compromise us because, unlike other foreigners resident in Moscow and Leningrad, we would actually live side by side with Russians instead of in a foreigners’ compound. We should be particularly careful not to be lured into sexual liaisons which would result in blackmail (from the Soviet side) and swift forcible repatriation (from the British). If any untoward approach was made to us, or if we knew of such an approach being made to someone else in the group, we should immediately inform the embassy. This was not a normal country we were going to. It was a Cold War zone.

I ended up spending a total of a year and a half in Cold War Moscow, between autumn 1966 and spring 1970. I travelled under a false identity, or that’s what it felt like: the nationality on my passport was British, not Australian; the surname was Bruce, which was my husband’s name but not mine; and, to top it off, I had decided to use my middle name, Mary, on the grounds that it could be shortened to Masha and would be easier for Russians. (Nothing came of this: I could not believe in Mary as my name, and in any case it turned out that all educated Russians knew the name Sheila – which had an easy diminutive, Shaylochka – because they had read C.P. Snow.)

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Wanda Kujacz @ Posi+Tive Magazine