Elsey, George

Kane, Jim


Lunghi, Hugh

Roberts, Frank


Continuation of Interview with Sir Frank Roberts


Q: Tell us about the incident of Soviet wives…

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, you see the Soviet wives, I mean was a very, in a sense, there were very few people concerned but it was very illustrative of the completely different approach on the…..side. What had happened was that during – towards the end of the war we had a military mission in Moscow, which really hadn't very much to do because the Russians didn't consult us very much, and there they got to meet Soviet girls who at that time couldn't buy silk stockings or cosmetics or anything, so they got together a good deal and some of them in spite of a lot of advice from our part, got married. Of course, from the British point of view or the American point – the Americans – of course they didn't become American citizens, the British side they did become British subjects but not in the Russian eyes, because they remained Russians as so long as they were in Russia. On the Western side we already had, of course, the KGB operating bugging and doing everything as we now know they did, and so any British - in Moscow – I mean they were all at that time either soldiers or officials, if they did get involved with Soviet women, men for that matter, even worse, they had to go home and the Russians wouldn't let them take their wives home. So this became an issue, the Soviet wives, and we could only solve it by treating Stalin as an oriental (name) and whenever we had important visitors at the end of their talks they would be asked to raise with Stalin the question of the two or three wives outstanding and couldn't they be allowed out. What was almost the funniest of the stories was when our Ambassador were leaving finally and Archie Clarke had been there throughout the war with Stalin and Stalin rather liked him in a way, they'd gone through difficult days together. And at the farewell dinner Stalin said to him, I was there, you know, we want to give you a present that you would really like because we worked together in the war, what would you like, and Archie Clarke, was very quick witted, said well, General (name) I don't expect you've been informed yet that I've just become a Moslem and I want four wives, but I can't give them to you tomorrow morning when the plane leaves, so we'll leave Mr Roberts to negotiate all this. But you see this became quite a major issue, and an issue of principle, because you see the British position was here it's a matter of human rights, individual rights, and why should these marriages be broken up even though we might have tried to stop them happening. On the Russian side it was these are Russian girls, they have been educated by the Russian state, they owe it to the Russian state to remain here and give their services to the Russian state which needs them at the time, and any way individuals have no right to decide these kind of things you see. It was the individual rights against the Russian system. Pushkin, many many years ago wrote at one point, he said the great difference between Russia and the West is that in Russia we regard - not only we treat, but even we regard the individual as being entirely subordinate to the state, whereas in the West whatever their practice may be we regard the state as being there for the individual. And this is still a basic difference in the approach of these two countries. It was very clearly illustrated in this question of Soviet wives, and it became a great issue and at that time Russia was very popular in England. I mean the English popular press was always writing splendid articles about the heroic Russians in the war, which they fully deserv. But then of course the British press started writing terrible articles over these poor poor men you'd see come back and were complaining that their wives had not been able to leave, you see, and so it did Russia a lot of harm. And I used to say to the Russians I can't think why you're doing this because it's doing you a lot of harm and for so few people. And they said to me – I remember one of them said to me, he said see, your approach is quite different from ours. You think that if you solve a lot of little minor questions that improves the overall relationship. We say that until the overall relationship had been established, by which they really meant, until you become pretty nearly communist like us then it's rather a waste of time trying to solve all these little matters, a really fundamental difference. And then there came in to it a very interesting thing because communism often worked hand in hand with Russian nationalists, and when we were arguing these cases I did get one very distinguished ballerina out who became one of the greatest dancers at Covent Garden, Vieletta Elvin, that was what I regarded as my only great success in two and a half years in the Soviet Union. But anyway, one day I was busy with all this…


Sir FRANK ROBERTS: And in the middle of all these discussions I was in a bookshop and I came across a history written by a Tsarist historian about things that happened in about the 15th Century when a Danish prince had got in to difficulties in Denmark and had come and become a soldier of fortune in Russia for the Tsar and married the Tsar's niece, then he'd gone back to Denmark and become the King of Denmark. So then he wrote a letter to his patron the Tsar saying that all was well in Denmark and could he arrange for his wife now to be put on a boat and brought to Denmark as the Queen of Denmark and then the Tsarist historian wrote, the King of Denmark received the right reply from the Tsar Ivan the III which was we do not send our daughters to be taken in to slavery abroad. And this was part of it, you know, part of this idea that Russian girls don't go abroad, they stay in Russian, whether princesses or whatever. Though anyway it's a case that I was so involved in and it's such a matter of human interest and so typical of, you know, completely different approaches on each side. We did get all the first 18 or 20 out except one, and then of course the Cold War came down and one couldn't make these appeals any more to Stalin.

Q: Move on more then to the consolidation of the Cold War. Britain in the winter of '47, I know that you're not actually on the spot, but can you describe the situation in Britain that led to Britain...

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: The winter of '47.

Q: In '47 the really hard winter in economic terms as well as climatic when Britain decided it could no longer bear the expense of supporting Greece and Turkey, what sort of state was this country in?

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, I mean it was - well, it had had to recover from the war, but it still had to carry out a lot of burdens, all around the world, it was still carrying a lot of responsibilities, which I think Ernie Bevin, our Foreign Secretary, I think it was he who said if the miners would give him another 100,000 tons of coal that would be a great help to his foreign policy. And we were in that situation and we were obviously all the time having to think of our relationship with America financially and Ernie's policy, of course, was that as far as possible we must persuade the Americans to take over burdens which we could no longer take over which it would be reasonable to ask the Americans to do. And that applies particularly to Greece and Turkey where we had been carrying the burden, and the Americans were persuaded to do it, and this was the Truman doctrine, was the beginning of the change over from what you might call the Roosevelt policy of making co-operation with Stalin's Russia, the number one objective of foreign policy and changing it over in to – well, almost deterring Stalin's Soviet Union…

Q: Can you remember…

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: And this – and it's funny you should mention this because it was at the conference in Moscow that the Foreign Minister's Conference in March I think it was, it went on about seven weeks, 1947, that the Truman doctrine was announced. I remember seeing it in Pravda and drawing it to Ernie Bevin's attention, and this is what he'd been working for. Because it was from that NATO developed, the Atlantic alliance. But when you go back to what was the position in this country well, I can tell you most vividly that I mean we didn't think we lived a very spoilt life in Moscow in those days but when the British delegation arrived in Moscow they were delighted to be in Moscow because at least the Russians had houses heated whereas in London it was very difficult to get houses heated in 1947, in that winter.

Q: You said you actually told Bevin about the announcement…

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, within Pravda, you see, and he didn't read Russian, and I … here is what you've been waiting for.

Q: What did he say?

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: He was delighted. But we retained a great many responsibilities, we weren't shuffling them all off. Of course the other thing we – that was a different thing altogether, was Palestine.

Q: The United Nations.

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, a little later than that.