Fond Memories of my Stepfather
Growing up in Russia
Life in the Red Army
Choosing to go West
A New Beginning
A Stepfather in my Life
His Secret Role
At the Going Down of the Sun
After my father died aged only forty-seven my mother soon married again, and I found a stepfather in my life. As an only child barely out of my teens this could have been a traumatic and volatile experience, but Freddie was such a lovely man that we enjoyed a pleasant and fruitful relationship for over thirty years.
Everything about Freddie was larger than life: a Russian from a well-to-do family with a famous father and a disgraced grandfather, a teacher, cavalry officer, prisoner of war, hunted refugee, oil painter, and RAF lecturer with close links to British military intelligence. When I first met him his painful past was all too recent to talk about, but over many years I slowly teased out some details of his early life and record them here as my personal tribute to a remarkable man.
Growing up in Russia
Fyodor Fyodorovitch Fyodorov, Freddie to his English family and friends, was born in 1913 in Rostov-on-Don, the capital of Rostov Oblast in the southern administrative district of Russia. Contrary to my youthful view of Russia, Rostov is a cultured city of over a million inhabitants and the climate is hot. Freddie's grandfather owned and ran a large farm using camels as beasts of burden. On Sundays his mother would take him to visit his grandparents, and he would frequently be left to play with the camels. He recalled one such visit, at the age of about five, being particularly unpleasant to these unfortunate animals. Eventually he took a liberty too far, and one of them reacted in the way camels do by spitting at him, copiously covering his Sunday best with spit. He was not allowed to change, and spent the remainder of the day in soggy contemplation of his misdemeanour.
In the 1920s Stalin introduced his policy of collective farms, in line with the communist dogma of state ownership of the means of production. Unsurprisingly, grandfather was not pleased with the appropriation of his farm without compensation, and was foolhardy enough to make his objections known. As a result his family had all its possessions confiscated and grandfather was disgraced and sent to Siberia. When Freddie told me this story I was stunned, as being sent to Siberia had been a joke when I was at school. The full significance of such a punishment was no further contact with your family and a likely early death from overwork and cold. Freddie never heard of his grandfather again.
Freddie's father was an officer in the Russian Cavalry, eventually becoming the Colonel-in-Chief of the last cavalry regiment in the Soviet Army. Freddie remembered him as a demanding and fastidious soldier, and no less so a father to his only child. He was minded to wear a freshly laundered pair of white gloves each day, and to use his forefinger to sample the cleanliness of his soldiers' uniforms, weapons and horses. Woe betide any unfortunate victim if this test left the tiniest mark on his gloves!
After a secondary education in a Gymnasium in Rostov, Freddie won a place at his local university to study English, and completed what appeared to me to be a very demanding four year degree. The former USSR offered an excellent education to those who qualified, and students were expected to take full advantage of the opportunity. After attending my own somewhat sedate degree congregation he detailed his own graduation, which I recall involved several days of bacchanalian pleasure with much vodka and caviar.
Concerned that I might miss out on such essential rights of passage, just before my twenty-first birthday he bought half a litre of 120 proof Stolichnaya vodka and a small wickedly expensive tin of caviar, instructing my mother to make some fingers of toast to spread it on.
After obtaining his first degree with honours he went on to Moscow University to train as a language teacher, and subsequently returned to Rostov to teach English in a secondary school. His knowledge of Shakespeare was embarrassingly better than mine, and he was prone to quote from the Bard and be genuinely surprised when I failed to recognise his quotation. I tried beating him at his own game by mugging up a Tolstoy tome and dropping some snippets into my conversation, but he not only never failed to recognise them but would develop the theme I had started and feign surprise when I could not keep up with him.
Life in the Red Army
By now it will be apparent that Freddie was a very intelligent man, with a sharp mind but a gentle spirit. Therefore, the advent of the Second World War and the speedy involvement of the USSR was especially shocking to him. As a young single male from a military family, it was inevitably his destiny to join the army, and so began the pivotal watershed of his life.
In common with all soldiers and despite having an influential father, he started his military training at boot camp. It was a brutal experience, made worse by having such a father, but he was well over six feet tall and very fit with all the optimism of youth, which helped him to survive. He was initially reluctant to talk about his war with me but he could be drawn to reminisce about his basic training, especially when there was a good story to be told. At first I was sceptical about his distinction between fact and fantasy, yet over time I believed more and more because of the consistent underlying thread of his narrations. Humour and self parody were ever present in most of them.
A popular tactic with his training sergeant was to wake new recruits repeatedly during the night, requiring them to don full kit and parade for inspection in the freezing cold of a Russian winter (his training camp was not in the balmy climate of the Urals). On one such night, after several rude awakenings, his troop decided to abandon putting on all their equipment by simply wearing the ample military overcoat over the underwear they wore in bed. Their sergeant was far too experienced to be fooled by this, and promptly ordered a night march to the local town. Dawn was breaking as they reached the outskirts, and on the pretext of protecting their greatcoats from the muddy streets, he ordered "up coats". This was achieved by buttoning the bottom corner of each coattail to the waist, lifting it to reveal all beneath, or nothing as the case may be, to the townsfolk hurrying to work. Freddie recalled the embarrassment, the cold and the exhaustion on their return to barracks in time for a normal full day of training.
On completion of boot camp he applied for officer training, and as the trilingual graduate son of the Colonel-in-Chief he was successfully commissioned as a junior officer in his father's Cavalry regiment. This proved to be a mixed blessing. The Colonel was keen to demonstrate that no favours would be afforded his son, so he endured another demanding period of hard work and humiliation the military everywhere seem to enjoy so much inflicting on their new recruits.
During his equestrian training Freddie developed his enduring love of the horse. I could hardly believe that soldiers on horseback were still fighting in the Second World War, with swords no less! Such skills had to be learned and honed if you were to stay alive, so of necessity he became an accomplished horseman and wielder of sabres, submachine guns, grenades, light mortars and any other weapons that could be deployed from the back of a horse.
He spent the next four years at war, fighting the German army on the eastern front. With all the prurience of youth I was desperate for Freddie to tell me about his experiences, but he stubbornly refused to be drawn. Clearly his memories were not happy ones, and history tells us that the fighting in this sector was among the most brutal and bloody of the war. However, he did let slip a snippet or two that illustrate how it coloured his life. I could not imagine the relevance of the cavalry in modern warfare, so he explained to me their tactical role in moving forward against the enemy. First, the artillery would pound the opposition's front line and the tanks would subdue their positions. Next, the infantry would advance to rout the defenders in hand-to-hand combat with small arms and bayonets. Finally, when the enemy soldiers turned and ran the cavalry would chase them on horseback and literally cut them down with sabres and submachine guns. Determined to get something tangible, I asked if he had killed anyone in close quarter combat with a sword.
I mentioned earlier that vodka played a key role in the Soviet army. On the front line food was always in short supply, especially in winter. So officers were fed first, and soldiers received little other than a bottle of vodka every day plus what they could forage from the land. Thus the ordinary soldier was usually very drunk and highly motivated to gain territory in the hope of finding food. Add to this mix a deep desire to avenge the earlier atrocities of the advancing German army and you can begin to understand how terrible the fighting was on the eastern front.
For me, the most revealing snippet came when I first asked Freddie if he wanted sugar in his tea, and had an unexpected explanation why he did not. He was leading his mounted troop on a reconnaissance sortie when they were engaged by the enemy and he was shot. In response to my raised eyebrow he immediately lifted his shirt to reveal a small scar on his right shoulder and a much larger and uglier matching one on his back. The bullet had passed straight through. He lay on the ground behind his wounded horse and survived the skirmish, but was sinking fast from loss of blood. Eventually his horse stood up and he managed to lie across its back, too weak to mount it properly, and lost consciousness. His horse took him back to camp without any bidding. He spent several weeks in a field hospital recovering. The army vet reported that his horse had many bullet wounds and should be destroyed, but understandably Freddie would have none of it. This time, being the Colonel's son proved beneficial and the horse was nursed back to operational fitness.
Eventually he was captured by the Germans and interned by them in terrible conditions with little food and no shelter. This period was definitely taboo for discussion, and the only thing I learned was that he was among a small handful to survive in a camp holding several hundred men.
Choosing to go West
As the war in Europe neared its close his prisoner-of-war camp was liberated by the Americans, and Freddie was confronted by some hard choices. As a Soviet officer who had allowed himself to be taken prisoner he could face a court marshal for cowardice if he returned to the USSR, or be liable to summary execution for desertion if he did not. He chose to go west.
To someone like me, lucky enough to grow up with the stability and sureness of life in Britain, I could hardly imagine what it must have been like to be stateless, without papers, penniless, hungry, in poor health, and on the run in an enemy land. Surely a true test of courage. His trudge west is too long to include here in its totality, but a few incidents stand out in my memory. He related how he 'borrowed' a horse for transport and travelled some two hundred miles with only apples to keep them both victualled. He had to fight a German farmer to keep a few potatoes he had 'harvested', and pondered the morality of stealing food from a needy family. For several weeks he lived off raw vegetables, occasional apples and river water, while continuously dodging Soviet military patrols on the lookout for deserters.
Arriving in the Bavarian capital of Munich he was befriended by a Ukrainian family which let him pose as their son, giving him some protection against the attentions of the military police. For over a year he lived with them, contributing to the family income by employing his artistic passion, painting in oils. Apparently there was no shortage of American servicemen willing to commission a portrait of their sweethearts from photographs they carried with them. Freddie was an accomplished oil painter and rose to the challenge, earning enough to feed and warm himself and his adopted family. His fee was almost always in kind: a lorry load of wood, sacks of vegetables and heating oil, no doubt mostly appropriated from unsecured military supplies.
During this harsh period with his adoptive family he grew ever closer to his 'sister' Tatiana. The full extent of this relationship was never made clear to me, but reading between the lines it was probably as complete as any might be. The hardships and uncertainties of their lives must inevitably have drawn them together in mutual support. Freddie also drew emotional comfort from a little chihuahua he found wandering in the street, taking it with him everywhere he went inside his greatcoat. When he described to me, with great sadness, how the dog eventually leapt to its death it brought a tear to the eyes of both of us.
By 1947, with the chaotic aftermath of war now over, the family began to consider their options for the future. Remaining in occupied Germany, with all its shortages and insecurity, was not an attractive proposition so they all applied to emigrate to the United States. Meanwhile Tatiana had been seeking an alternative exit strategy, and announced that she was going to live with a German colonel. Freddie was devastated. Sensing that his relationship with the Ukrainian family was now over, he applied to come to Britain instead.
A New Beginning
Post war Britain was hardly paradise, as I remember all too well myself. Having spent two and a half years living in the comparative comfort of a requisitioned house near Hanover while my father was part of the occupying Allied Forces, my mother and I had returned to a transit camp in Warrington. This was a ghastly place comprising several dilapidated army huts, mostly without internal doors, where we endured a miserable five months before married quarters were found for us. Freddie, however, found the contrast with Germany quite the opposite. Required as a refugee to spend five years in manual labour before qualifying for citizenship, an incredible condition by today's standards, he began by working in a rose nursery in Torquay. The work was hard and the pay poor, but in contrast to Germany his adequate food and secure accommodation combined with the gentle Devon climate really was paradise.
After a three year stint in Torquay he was moved, such was his refugee status, to Huddersfield where he completed his qualifying period in a textile mill and acquired a keen and critical eye for cloth. I remember well going with him to collect a new sheepskin coat he had ordered from a rather snooty gents outfitters in Portsmouth. Suspicious that it might not be the real thing, he cut a chunk of wool from the lining and, to the obvious horror of the assistant, set fire to it in the shop with his cigarette lighter. Reassured by the pungent smell of burning wool, he declared his approval and paid for the coat.
Qualifying period over, with a brand new British passport to confirm it, he made enquiries through the Russian Society in London about the possibility of a more challenging career. He described how he was interviewed by a panel of worthy Russian émigrés to try and convince them that he was a graduate linguist and teacher. By remembering the names of his university teachers and describing the places he had studied, he was able to have his qualifications accredited to help him find an appropriate appointment. Shortly after this interview he was invited to apply for a job as a lecturer at the British Military School of Languages. He was successful, and spent the remainder of his career teaching Russian to military personnel.
A Stepfather in my Life
When my father died my mother was a vivacious and lively woman in her late forties, still attractive and charming, clearly not destined to spend the rest of her life alone. I was an only child with a similarly assertive personality to hers and a year's independent living under my belt, so we endured a tumultuous relationship. Thus, when I came home at the end of my first year at university I was not altogether surprised or unhappy to discover a new man in my mother's life - Freddie.
Their meeting was characteristically unorthodox. Sworn to secrecy lest I embarrass her with our family and friends, she revealed that she had seen an advertisement in the lonely hearts column of a magazine extolling the virtues of an RAF officer seeking a companion. Couched in language that was clearly not his native tongue, he had made extravagant claims about his looks, intelligence and position sufficient to ignite my mother's interest. So she had replied, declining to say too much about herself but inviting him, if he was interested, to come and see for himself. Freddie, intrigued by the only response among many not to include a flattering description of the writer, accepted her invitation, and the die was cast. Within twelve months they were wed, and enjoyed twenty-nine years of married contentment.
My relationship with Freddie began well. Anxious to win my approval he would bring me two hundred cigarettes on each visit, to the point where I had difficulty smoking them fast enough! He also let me drive his car, a sure-fire winner for me. His accent was engaging and his background so fascinating and unusual that we hit it off straight away. He was a natural storyteller, and this was eventually appreciated by my wife and our three children. What a shame our grandchildren never knew him.
By 1961, the year Freddie married my mother, he had been teaching Russian to the military for ten years and held the honorary rank of Flight Lieutenant in the RAF. By one of those inexplicable coincidences of life, a fellow student of mine at Birmingham who abandoned his studies and joined the RAF had become his star pupil. One day he produced a photo of John with him on Bognor beach, and I could hardly believe that it was the same person. Freddie had the edge over most of his fellow lecturers because he had been a teacher and not only knew his language but also how to teach it. My mother had some success in learning Russian, but I spent so little time at home after graduation that I missed what would surely have been a wonderful opportunity.
Freddie was born Russian, lived as a Russian, and died a Russian. Intensely proud of his country and its heritage, he would argue passionately with me about whose country had done the most for humanity in arts, science, sport, you name it. As a maths graduate I would declare with confidence that Newton discovered gravitation and formulated the calculus; he would debunk this and nominate an unknown (to me) Russian. I had studied with Professor Rudi Peierls, the father of the atomic bomb; he would counter with another unknown Russian who had apparently made one earlier. Both of us were absolutely convinced that we were right and that the other's point of view was simply propaganda; with the benefit of hindsight about political spin, I sometimes wonder how often I was wrong.
Despite his love of Russia Freddie hated the USSR. After all, in his lifetime the Soviet communists had murdered the Russian royal family, stolen his grandfather's farm, stopped him from returning home after the war, and continued to wage a cold war against his adopted country. The regime even prevented him from enquiring about his mother, whose fate remained a mystery until he died. These memories left a profound impression on him, which initially made him deeply wary of everyone, not just coat makers! When we first met he told my mother and me that he was a Czech, because he feared our reaction to his being Russian. When he took his car for a service he would stay all day to ensure that the garage did not exchange any of his parts for worn out ones, common practice in Russia apparently. When I borrowed a hundred pounds to buy my mother's car, he was convinced that I would never pay it back (I did!). It took many years to win his trust completely, but once won you knew you had it forever.
Extensive travel to many countries for business and pleasure has convinced me that most nationalities share a common set of characteristics. Freddie never lost his. He had a delightful sense of humour, but somewhat skew from my own. He would delight in English words that had a rude connotation in Russian when pronounced phonetically; he would often snigger when we drove past the Pricerite supermarket, but annoyingly refused to let me in on the joke. I once heard a Russian story on the radio about how the time of the day a Russian ate his main meal depended on his social status. The peasant would eat at noon, the professional in the early evening, the aristocrat in the late evening, … and the Tsar on the following day. When I related this to Freddie he thought it was hilarious and chuckled over it for some time; for me it had limited merit.
Freddie had a handful of Russian colleagues at work, and we were sometimes invited to their homes. They enjoyed wonderful Russian names like Boris Alexandrovitch or Rada and family names such as Kratchenkov and Illyanov. Those who taught other languages were also archetypically endowed, like the Chinese lecturer Mr Yung, known universally as Jimmy! These people inevitably became a small enclave of their national culture, and I believe that this was the main reason why Freddie never lost his Russianness. If you speak the language and mix with colleagues from home every working day then it is hardly surprising.
Being Russian could cause him both pleasure and angst. When Yuri Gagarin made it into orbit he was over the moon (so to speak); but when his teaching group visited the Red Army Dancers in London all the Russians were paranoid about being identified and agreed to speak nothing but English for fear of spies in the audience. I suppose that their involvement in teaching the British military might have been construed as treason, but it is a difficult concept to grasp for those of us born in a free society.
His Secret Role
As a youth I would sometimes playfully suggest to Freddie that he might be a Russian spy, and found it was an accusation he did not take lightly. At first I thought this was his normal reaction to any questions about his nationality, but over the years I had every reason to suppose that it was rather too close to the truth. I am convinced that he worked, not for the Russians, but for British military intelligence. Maybe I just wanted it to be so, but the accumulation of evidence is hard to deny.
Freddie had three main roles at work: lecturer in Russian, translator, and briefing senior diplomats at Britain's Moscow embassy. When a new diplomatic appointment was made he would have one-to-one sessions with the appointee, when they would read the Russian newspapers Pravda and Izvestia together and discuss current affairs as part of their preparation. He would often disappear for several days and be very vague about where he had been and why. My mother knew more than she would let on, but loyally she never broke his confidence other than to intimate that there was more to these absences than met the eye. The clincher for me was when I had to be vetted for an MoD contract myself, and I felt sure I would be ditched for having a Russian stepfather. When I broached this with my inquisitor he informed me that his security clearance was much higher than mine.
He retired at sixty-five, but was repeatedly called back until he was over seventy. I guess his special skills and experience, not just his language, may have been difficult to replace.
At the Going Down of the Sun
In his early seventies Freddie was remarkably fit, retaining both his physical and mental faculties in retirement. He was an enthusiastic gardener, still a keen rose grower, and would tackle even the most physically demanding jobs. He continued to paint in oils, and we are lucky to have a small sample of his work, the best of which is a painting of a herd of wild horses in disarray, which now belongs to our horse-dedicated elder daughter.
However, in his mid seventies he was diagnosed as having Parkinson's Disease and his deterioration was all too fast. At first he had difficulty walking, then his speech became difficult, and finally he became increasingly incoherent until he reverted to speaking only Russian and failed to recognise my mother and myself.
He died in hospital of pneumonia in 1990 aged seventy-seven, a blessed relief to a man who had lived an incredible life and suffered so much early tragedy, but who triumphed to enjoy a fulfilling second half and to brighten the lives of all who where fortunate enough to know him.
He was forever Russian.
Since first posting this eulogy on my website I have received dozens of contacts from Freddie's former pupils. Their judgement is always the same: he was both an excellent teacher and a wonderful man. It is heartening for me to know that his memory still lives on for so many people. I am always delighted to hear from anyone who remembers him.