A Tale of Love and Fortitude: An Extraordinary Life
In 1944, near the end of World War II, Kapitolina (Lina) Panfilova met Thomas McAdam, a British sailor who had sailed with the Arctic Convoys to Archangel in Northern Russia, and the couple quickly fell in love. The affair was to last barely six months but it was to shape Lina's destiny.
The missions known as the Arctic Convoys began in 1941. Ships were sent to the northern ports of the Soviet Union from Britain, Iceland and North America to escort British merchant ships supplying the Red Army on the eastern front in their fight against Hitler. The convoys carried young men, many not much more than boys, primarily to the northern ports of Archangel (Arkhangelsk) and Murmansk.
This was one of the most dangerous missions of the Second World War. The route the convoys took was fraught with peril, especially in winter when the freezing conditions and gale-force winds reached their peak. Winston Churchill referred to it as the worst journey in the world. The ships were under constant attack by German air and sea forces, and life expectancy for those on board was not high. Many ships were destroyed and 3,000 navy personnel died as a result of the heavy bombing.
The above merely constitutes a brief background to the story of Lina and Thomas. If you would like to know more about the Arctic Convoys themselves, the links below give further details of the missions.
The first link is to a short article giving a potted history of the Arctic Convoys and outlines briefly the purpose and some details of the missions.
The second link is to an article which appeared in the Mail Online. In the body of the article there is a series of fascinating photographs taken on board the convoy ships illustrating what the freezing conditions on deck were like. There are also some graphic accounts given years later by some of the veterans themselves.
Against this background, young British sailors arriving in a foreign port, lonely, fearful for their future and far away from home, sought solace with the young women of the locality. Every sailor knew that the missions were so dangerous and the risks so high that there was a high possibility that they would not survive the war or even make it home again. Time was short and emotions ran high. It was easy to fall in love, and many did.
A Brief Affair
Thomas was a signaller based in Archangel. Lina's father was a captain in the Russian navy helping the Arctic Convoys. At this time, Britain and Russia were allies, and relations between the sailors and the authorities were outwardly cooperative. Lina knew that the secret police were deeply suspicious of anyone who had a foreign boyfriend, but she thought it would be safe to go out with a British sailor because, after all, everyone was working towards the same goal which was to support the Red Army and defeat Hitler.
As the months went by the couple grew very close. In later years, Lina remembered Thomas as gentle and kind, and spoke affectionately of his bright blue eyes. "I knew Thomas as a calm, gallant, joyful and smiling person," she said. "We loved each other and we were in a close relationship.
In 1945, the war ended and the British servicemen had to return home. Thomas had no choice but to leave Archangel and return to Scotland. However, by this time, Lina was expecting their baby. One can only imagine the heartbreak of their final parting. Thomas asked Lina to call the child Stephen if the child turned out to be a boy, and when their son was born the following year, she honoured Thomas' wishes and named the boy Stepan, which is the Russian version of Stephen.
A Heavy Price to Pay
At the end of the war, under Stalin's orders, all women who had consorted with foreigners during the war were deemed to have been spying for the enemy and were to be hunted down and charged with espionage. At first, Lina thought she had escaped arrest, but in 1951, the secret police knocked at her door.
Before he left, Thomas had presented her with a picture of himself as a gift, but fearful of the consequences of being found with it, she tore it to pieces, leaving her with no tangible souvenir of their relationship.
Despite her efforts to destroy all evidence of her association with Thomas, Lina was arrested, charged and convicted of being 'a socially dangerous element'. Like many others, she received no mercy. Even though her son was only five years old, she was sentenced to 10 years hard labour in a forced-labour camp (gulag) in Siberia. Thankfully, Lina's parents took responsibility for the care for Stepan while his mother was away.
Somehow, Lina managed to survive during the years of her incarceration. Others didn't. Quite apart from the bitter cold of Siberia, conditions in gulags were notoriously bad. Dreadful abuses were commonplace which are too dreadful to describe here. Women like Lina were imprisoned with all kinds of criminals such as murderers and rapists, and abuse against women inmates would be perpetrated by gulag staff or other male prisoners. Some young women were never heard of again.
Fortunately for Lina, and it is a credit to her fortitude, she managed to summon up the strength to survive. Perhaps it was the thought of her young son at home that drove her on.
The Silent Years
Then, miraculously it seemed, she was released early as a result of an amnesty afforded to some women with young children. It had been three long and miserable years, but thankfully, not the full 10 years of her sentence. When she came home, she dared not tell her son about his British father.
It must have been hard for her. Over the years, Stepan would often beg her for information, but fear kept her silent. It was not until Stepan reached 52 years of age that Lina finally felt able to tell him what he so desperately wanted and needed to know - the identity of his father.
In later years, Lina explained why she had kept this secret from Stepan for so long.
"Coming back home I kept silence about my relationship with Thomas," she said. "His son was growing. Those were really difficult years in Russia. The attitude towards the children who were born from foreigners was very bad. That is why I kept silence for many years."
The Secret is Revealed
During the 1980s, the political environment in Russia rapidly changed. Within a decade, the sweeping changes introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev with the introduction of perestroika (political movement for reformation within the Communist Party) and the glasnost (openness) policy reform, resulted in less authoritarianism and greatly increased personal freedom.
Feeling safer now, Lina finally was able to tell Stepan about his father, but she had nothing to show her son, not even so much as a single photograph of Thomas. Neither did she have any way of knowing whether her wartime sweetheart was still alive. The British Royal Navy was not able to help and no one knew what had happened to him after he was discharged in 1946.
A Chance Intervention
There the story would have ended but for a Russian journalist called Olga Golubtsova from Severodvinsk, a naval port north of Archangel, who was investigating the miserable fate of the Russian girlfriends of British sailors. She has written extensively on the subject. The following are links to some of her articles on this topic.
Olga had come across Lina's story during the course of her research. There were many such stories, but Lina's had the distinction of there being a son involved. She contacted the BBC in London.
The BBC advised that Caroline Wyatt was their Russian correspondent based in Moscow. Olga contacted Caroline and asked her if there was any way that she could help trace Thomas McAdam or members of his family. The two journalists subsequently arranged a meeting in Archangel to discuss the matter.
In her role as Russian correspondent for the BBC, Caroline occasionally contributed to the Radio 4 programme 'From Our Own Correspondent', a weekly broadcast which still runs today in which BBC foreign correspondents deliver personal accounts of events and topical themes occurring in the countries in which they are based. This would be a perfect opportunity to broadcast Lina's story.
A Stroke of Luck
A programme featuring Lina's story, which Caroline herself presented, went out on 1st September 2001 at 1 pm. Carole Eyre, a regular follower of 'From Our Own Correspondent', would normally have been at home in her kitchen listening to the programme. However, that morning, she had attended an appointment at her hairdresser's. When she got into her car to begin her journey home, the radio was tuned to Radio 4 although she had missed the beginning of the programme.
When the name McAdam was mentioned it immediately caught her attention. It just so happened that she had a friend called Graham McAdam, and quite by coincidence, she was due to attend a barbecue hosted by a mutual friend that very afternoon at which Graham would be present.
As she was to describe later, what really got the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end was when Thomas was described as having piercing blue eyes. She immediately thought of Graham's sister, Diane. She just knew he had to be a relative of Graham and Diane.
"I remember how I heard the broadcast, and the fact that I almost didn't hear it is more worrying. Would this fab family connection have come about if I hadn't?" In retrospect, it is quite clear that it wouldn't have.
Carole went on to say that she would never forget it and was delighted to have had the chance to meet Lina and Stepan when they came to the UK.
In any event, within a couple of hours she was at the barbecue and was able to ask Graham directly if he had heard the broadcast.
It transpired that Graham had not in fact heard the broadcast, but when Carole asked him if he had any relatives called Thomas who had sailed with the Arctic Convoys, he was able to confirm that he did indeed have such a relative, an Uncle called Thomas who had taken part in the missions and who fitted the description of the man that Lina had described. In short, Graham was the son of Thomas McAdam’s brother, George.
Graham himself had a son, Alasdair. Alasdair and Graham were, as far as Graham knew, the only male blood relatives of the McAdam clan left, as both Thomas and Graham's father, George, were dead. Thomas had died suddenly in 1980 aged only 59, and George, his younger brother, had died in 1986.
A Happy Ending
Graham was intrigued and wanted to find out more. No one in the family had ever mentioned a Russian connection. But although Lina had no physical evidence to contribute, she had a wealth of detailed information about Thomas and there were far too many coincidences for the story to be immediately dismissed as a false trail.
Further investigation was required, and if the details that Lina had provided could be verified, that would mean that Lina's son, Stepan, would be Graham's cousin, and he would be a third surviving male relative of the McAdam clan.
Caroline Wyatt then acted as intermediary between Lina and Graham to establish the truth once and for all. Letters and photographs were exchanged and information shared, and it soon became clear that there was absolutely no doubt that Lina's Thomas was also Graham's Uncle Thomas.
The news was received with elation on both sides. Lina and Stepan, although sad and disappointed to hear that Thomas was no longer alive, were overjoyed that they had finally found what they had so long been searching for. Graham and his family were in turn absolutely delighted to have discovered another branch of the family that they never knew existed.
And, of course, not only did Stepan constitute a third surviving male of the McAdam clan, he himself had two sons, Fedor and Dima. They also had inherited the right to wear the MacGregor tartan. (The clan McAdam is a sub-group, or sept, of the MacGregor clan.
The photograph below is of Lina and Stepan's immediate family. Stepan's daughter Masha and his two sons Fedor and Dima are featured, as well as Lida, his wife. Seated at the very front is Lina's sister, Nina Fedorovna. Lina had another sister, Lyudmila Fedorovna, who does not appear in this photograph.
In November 2002, Lina and Stepan visited the UK and met Graham and other members of the McAdam family. It was an emotional three weeks and difficult at times because neither side spoke the other's language, but somehow, everyone managed to communicate with the help of BBC interpreters, sign language, and by the use of some scanty knowledge of German.
The video clip below was filmed in November 2002 when Lina and Stepan visited the UK. The first scene shows them at Kings Cross Station prior to meeting Caroline Wyatt at a restaurant for an interview. The second part of the video shows a particularly touching moment when Lina was presented with a locket containing a picture of herself and one of Thomas.
Graham in turn has since travelled to Archangel three times to visit his new-found family, once in January 2003, August 2003 and January 2007.
Stepan would have loved to have met his father, Thomas McAdam, but that was not to be. Nevertheless, he was more than grateful to simply know his father's identity at last. To be able to come to the United Kingdom and to travel to Scotland, the country of his father's origin, and see in person the places that his father had frequented was more than he could ever have hoped for, not to mention the joy of meeting his new extended family, a family previously unknown to him.
Lina, who never married because she said she never fell out of love with Thomas, died in 2012 aged 89, at peace in the knowledge that her only true love had gone on to lead a good and successful life and found happiness. She had learned that Thomas had married and had two daughters.
She showed no bitterness about how her life had unfolded. "I was never sorry about loving Thomas," she told Caroline. "Even in the hardest times, I always remembered him with love."
Graham and Stepan to this day communicate regularly using Skype. A strong bond has developed between the two cousins which remains to this day. Stepan is proud of his McAdam roots and Graham is proud of his Russian connection, and the McAdam blood line lives on. Further Anglo-Russian visits are likely in the future.
- BBC NEWS From Our Own Correspondent. Article written by Caroline Wyatt.
This follow-up article, Russian Love Story Crosses the Decades, outlines the story and describes from Caroline's own perspective the meeting when Kapitolina and Stepan were finally united with members of the McAdam side of the family 60 years on.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Annabelle Johnson