Margaret’s adventures in Russia

Margaret Spencer, who secretly served in the SOE in the Second World War SUS-140716-163609001
Margaret Spencer, who secretly served in the SOE in the Second World War SUS-140716-163609001

I have visited Russia four times in 50 years. The first time was 1942 in the middle of the Second World War.

There was an English woman married to a Russian living in Moscow and it became necessary to get her out to save her life.

The job fell to me. I flew to Helsinki where I had a makeover into a high-ranking Russian officer. Believe it or not, I was a “skinny lissie” in those days and, with a beautiful black beard, I made a good man.

I then flew to Minsk where I was met by an army car with a Russian army driver (one of us) who drove me to Moscow. Now, of course, we were allies of Russia but I can assure you they were anything but friendly, so suspicious of strangers found in their midst they would shoot first and ask afterwards.

For all their security we found that the higher the officer impersonated, the easier it was to fool them; nobody dared stop you.

When we arrived at Ida’s home we terrified her and her family in the Russian style. She thought she was being arrested but not by any means could we indicate otherwise.

We drove way out into the country where I told her in my normal voice that she was going home to Ipswich and that, for the rest of the journey, she would travel in the boot of the car. I shall never forget the look of sheer joy on her face.

I am not going to bore you of details of our devious journey home but I was glad when it was over; Russia was a terrifying place.

My next trip was 1952 to take Ida back over the Russian border. We were now in the midst of the Cold War and dangerously near World War Three, this time with the Russians.

Of course, we had beaten Germany by now so, obviously, I went over to Germany, again in the same disguise and with Ida in the boot. This time I drove myself over the border to a pre-arranged spot in a forest where I was met by a British Embassy car, So, out with Ida who was met by her husband. I then got into the boot and over the border and home and I vowed never to go back to Russia.

September, 1987:

Well, here I am going back to Russia with my daughter on holiday so I wasn’t frightened this time so long as we obeyed the rules.

So when I knew we were going I wrote to Ida, via the “diplomatic bag”, in the hope she might still be alive. The reply, via the embassy was that she was now a widow and working in the hotel where we were to stay for three days.

In the plane going over it was evident that the stewards had guns in their belts, which gave you a rather spine-chilling feeling. They brought round forms to list all your jewellery and money. This was not for our protection but to make sure that nothing extra was taken out of Russia. No religious literature, or crosses to be worn.

At the airport, coming home, we had to produce any goods we had bought and, within a few roubles, had to account for our money, and a check was made to make sure that not a single rouble was taken out.

After we were settled into the hotel, which was very basic, Ida made contact with me. I wouldn’t have recognised her, she was a wizened-up, very old lady but I knew she was my age.

I was able to learn a lot about Russian life from the ordinary folk. No wages were paid from their work but the state put them into flats or bed-sitters, according to the size of their family, all furnished the same with the barest necessities and open to inspection to make sure no extras were obtained.

They were given the equivalent of £5 per person per month up to £20 no matter how big the family. In consequence, children were married off as soon as possible to form a new unit.

The threat hanging over them was that, if they appeared to have bettered their standard of living, the children were taken away and the parents were sent to salt mines. So, out of fear, they all did what they were told.

One day we saw a long queue outside a shop; they were queueing for tights! We went into the shop to see - horrible things; we wouldn’t have used them for gardening, at the equivalent of 50p. I was warned before we went to take a supply of tights to use as tips because they weren’t allowed to accept money.

At Ida’s suggestion, we went to a food shop to watch, so we will pretend we are going to buy butter, bacon, cheese and cabbage. Just take a packet of butter from the counter and hand it to the girl at the end. She takes the butter and gives you a ticket which you take to the cash desk and pay. Then you take the receipt back to the girl at the counter and she hands you the butter.

You then go to the bacon counter and then, guess what, just the same procedure. This is the same for your cheese and cabbage.

Your shopping is now complete, when you get to the door your bag is checked. All told, this has taken one and a quarter hours for just four items.

This procedure is the same for rich and poor alike, so heaven knows how long a full week’s shop would take.

We went to a clothing shop and, talk about “them or us”; on one side of the shop it was full of drab stockinette dresses and brown tweed coats and, on the other side, beautiful fur coats, hats and Levis jeans at £100 a pair.

There are wealthy people around but beware of them because they are “high-ups” in the Communist Party.

The thing I noticed was the totally blank faces of the people; no emotion whatsoever and a smile was a twitch of the lips. Clean; no litter; safe to be on the streets at night.

However, we enjoyed our holiday. During three days in Moscow we did all the touristy things, even to seeing the fabulous Metro.

It’s so clean including crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in the booking hall. But then everything in Russia was clean and tidy. The streets of Moscow were washed overnight; mind you, nobody would dare to drop so much as a sweet paper.

We then travelled by train, in the most antiquated carriages you could imagine, to Leningrad. It’s a beautiful city and very much restored after the siege of Leningrad during the war, which I am sure you have heard of. The domes of the churches (now museums) were all freshly gilded and, incredibly, the crosses were also gilded and stood above the domes although religion was absolutely forbidden - jail for disobedience but, remember, the Christians still met in secret - wonderful people longing for the day they could once again use their churches.

I must tell you one incident when we were a group listening to a guide when I noticed two men watching us. I followed their eyes and they were focused on a man in our group with his mother. Then, horror of horrors, I noticed how he was standing in the typical stance of a Roman Catholic Priest. When we got back to the hotel I warned him that he was giving himself away.

The end of our holiday came and I must tell you of the palaver at the airport. Your money and jewellery were checked - there were receipts for everything bought - this was not for your protection but to make sure you took nothing out that wasn’t accounted for.

Then onto the plane and, surprise, surprise, it was on time to the minute.