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Why an Englishman Did Not Become a Soviet Citizen

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 12:00 AM

On Nov. 18 I received an e-mail from "River Sd., who argues that unless one is very rich (can "pay $1,000 for a loaf”), life in the West today does not differ essentially from that in, for example, Stalin’s dictatorship.

To show "River Sd.” that he is one-sided or is oversimplifying, I will recall below – no, not the list of Stalin’s atrocities, but just a real event from my life.

It was shortly before Stalin’s death in 1953. I translated, as a free-lancer, Russian classical literature (e.g., Dostoyevsky) into English for the Moscow Publishing House of Literature in Foreign Languages, and the advantage was that all my colleagues were Anglo-Americans and I could associate with them without arousing the suspicion of the MGB, as Stalin’s secret police were called (later the KGB).

Among my Anglo-American colleagues at the publishing house there had appeared a young man fresh from England, Robert Daglish. How on earth had an Englishman strayed into Stalin’s Russia shortly before Stalin’s death?

The Soviet Embassy in the United States no longer sent the children of the Soviet Embassy personnel to the best private American schools, as it had been doing during Hitler’s war for world domination and the resulting Soviet-American friendship. The Soviet Embassy had set up its own Soviet school in the United States. One of its teachers – Kasyenkina – fled and asked for political asylum.

But the Soviet slave-owners had a knack for creating world sensations detrimental to themselves. The Soviet "organs of state security” kidnapped her and brought her to the Soviet Embassy, but she jumped out an open window (there was no air conditioning in those days, and the windows were open). She lived and was taken to a hospital, and from the hospital bed she told her story in a weak, anguished voice before the microphones for all the world to hear.

Stalin wanted "counter-propaganda.” Kasyenkina had fled to them, and Daglish to us! See?

Robert had graduated from Cambridge, where he had majored in Russian, and was a translator at the British Embassy in Moscow. A young Russian girl decided to marry him. He was game enough. Marriages between foreigners and "Soviet citizens” were forbidden. But they were allowed to register their marriage because he had made a statement (quite sincere) to the effect that Stalin’s Russia was peaceful, while the British government was not.

The next step for Robert was to renounce his British citizenship, and "take Soviet citizenship,” to fully counter the Kasyenkina sensation. Robert was not a Communist, of course. If he had been, his propaganda value would have been zero. But a person who studies a foreign language passionately enough becomes addicted to the country speaking it. Robert liked his life in Moscow and believed that Soviet Russia was culturally superior to today’s England, which had become culturally sterile, shallow and vulgar, in his opinion.

So, here were two colleagues walking to the subway, and Robert was telling me about his forthcoming change of citizenship. I was telling him that an MGB sleuth was following us, but this was all right because we were two fellow workers speaking of tennis. "Do you play tennis?” I asked. He turned pale and answered, "Not much.” I gave him a five-minute survey of the

"No, sir! It’s your Conservatives who are saying what I am saying,” I quipped. "Your face is too serious. Please smile. We are talking tennis. You are now a British subject and under world public eyes. Nothing can happen to you. But the moment you become a Soviet citizen, you’ll be a microbe in their test tube. Then you will sign anything they want, you will act any role they will prepare for you, you will not exist any longer as your own self. They will be able to put you to death in any way imaginable and concoct any case history about your illness and death. Britain will then be unable to do anything because you won’t be a British subject.

You will renounce not your Conservatives but the millennium of English political history, beginning with trial by jury.”

Here was the subway. I went with him. Couldn’t a good Soviet man see his new colleague home to finish their exciting talk about tennis? That was even riskier, but I did it. I was determined to dissuade him. Besides, I, born into Stalin’s

Robert’s wife was suspected, by an editor at the Publishing House who knew her, of being a "swallow,” sent by the MGB to trap Robert sexually. Was I doomed this time?

Anyway, here we were in the subway. He tried to show me that the English-speaking countries seemed to me so beautiful from afar because I had never lived in them. In this way I was apt to claim that this Moscow subway we were riding, admittedly the world’s best – look at all these stations faced with marble – was worse than its London counterpart – all wet, dirty concrete, with ads like:

"Can you prove this to me?”

"That’s at last an Englishman talking! Would you believe that the secret police department at every enterprise and institution is called on its door sign not ‘The Organs of State Security’ or ‘The MGB,’ but ‘The Special Department’?”

"Yes,” he said after some reflection.

"Let’s go by this beautiful marble subway to the Institute of Foreign Languages. A good one-hundred-percent-Soviet man is showing his alma mater to his peace-loving English colleague. Right? We will pass by ‘The Special Department’ door. Don’t stop or stare. See it as we pass by, without turning your head.”

We did it. Well, it

Now, how did I survive? His wife was

As for his change of citizenship, Robert’s wife considered it about as desirable as a serf woman a century earlier would have considered the decision of the duke or count she had married to become a serf. Had she known that he would become a serf, perhaps she would not have married him in the first place. But what could she do?

Suppose she tried to persuade him that Stalin’s Russia had a ubiquitous secret police network. Who knew what his reaction would be? He could ask her why she had married him without telling all this. She had trapped him! What if he rushed into the British Embassy to recant his whole venture, including her, and to go back to England alone? I did the job for her, for egocentric motives of my own.

The episode would be incomplete without mentioning the fact that after the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship late in 1991, I described it in the major daily of Russia, Izvestia (April 2, 1992, p. 6). I expected Robert or his wife to respond. Instead there came a letter to the editor (May 7) from somebody who had known Robert. She reported that Robert had died, and then she attacked me for my failure to describe his work as a translator, and proceeded to describe it on her own as though preparing his application to the personnel department of a heavenly publishing house.

Stalin, his "organs of state security,” and the mortal danger versus Magna Carta and Habeas corpus meant nothing to her, or perhaps Stalin meant to her a lost paradise on earth, as he did and does to many voters, ready to vote for those good old times when Robert Daglish had such a good job record as an excellent translator, while nowadays there are strange individuals like myself who, instead of presenting his job record, tell of his outside-his-job life, which is certainly of no importance and of no interest.

This piece is a variation on one of the themes of my book in progress, "Out of Moscow and Into New York: A Life in the Geostrategically Lobotomized West in the Age of Terrorism and Post-Nuclear Superweapons.” Publishers: The 27-page Proposal and the first 130-page part of the book can be mailed to you if you apply to me (

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On Nov. 18 I received an e-mail from "River Sd., who argues that unless one is very rich (can "pay $1,000 for a loaf"), life in the West today does not differ essentially from that in, for example, Stalin's dictatorship. To show "River Sd." that he is one-sided or is...
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Tuesday, 26 November 2002 12:00 AM
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