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From Russia with love

Nora and John Murray’s double memoirs read like a fictional spy thriller

08 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Nora and John Murray’s wedding at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1943

NORA Korzhenko was removed from her class­room alongside a fellow student and driven by stern-faced policemen to the headquarters of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s feared secret police.

A note that had been left on Nora’s dressing table at her home was read aloud to them. It said: “Can you obtain the bullets to shoot Tregor?”

An interrogation followed: Nora’s father Vassily was a senior figure in the NKVD and it appeared his young daughter had somehow become embroiled in a plot to murder a prominent German.

As would become clear, Tregor was actually the name of her school friend’s elderly dog who was in terrible pain – and since her father was a police officer, her friend had hoped Nora would help put it to sleep.

This short passage in a recently published memoir is indicative of the extraordinary early life Nora led. It is an example of what it was like growing up in the Soviet Union as the daughter of a high-ranking official, of the bizarre and dangerous situations she would find herself in – and how eventually she would be sent to spy on John Murray, who worked for the British government and was based in Moscow.

Nora and John: the Russian Love Story is the combined memoirs of two people who were thrown together by the political intrigues of the mid-20th century, and how they were to escape the oppressive terror of Stalin’s regime in the 1930s and find safety in Gospel Oak.

As the book explains, Nora’s father went from hero of the revolution to a chief of the dreaded NKVD, a precursor to the KGB: he was then a victim of the purges and his daughter went from a cosseted position in society to becoming an outcast. Forcibly recruited by the NKVD – who had her father in prison – she was told she had to spy on John Murray, a member of the British delegation in Moscow. They were to fall in love and with her life under threat, work out whether it was possible for them to marry and escape.

Nora wrote a book, I Spied For Stalin, in 1950 – seven years after leaving the USSR. John’s contribution, A Spy Called Swallow, was written in 1978 – and now both have been published as single volume. Not only do they offer an insight to life under Stalin, and work as a historical document, the book is a love story about how a relationship was formed in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Picture Post reported on the couple and their children walking on Parliament Hill in 1947

Son Leeroy Murray recalls his mother penning the memoir soon after the war had ended.

“She hadn’t long been in Britain,” he says. “Partly her reason for writing this was to show the world that not all Russians were Stalinists.”

The memoirs are beautifully detailed, helped by Nora regularly keeping a diary. John’s book, written decades later, was prompted by his retirement and then enrolment at Nottingham University to study history.

“This encouraged him to speak about his experiences,” adds Leeroy. “He had seen the war sweep into the Baltic States.”

John writes of their journey from his point of view, and it dovetails nicely with Nora’s story. A businessman trading in tobacco, he worked in Eastern Europe and Russia through the 20s and 30s – and was asked to help the British diplomatic corps. As war broke out, he was in Scandinavia and after escaping the German invasion of Norway, was sent to Moscow as part of the British delegation. It was where Nora was told she had to spy on him and this would eventually lead to the pair falling in love and then having to work out how they could escape the USSR and start a new life in London.

Nora offers an insight into life under Stalin, from the suffocating atmosphere of suspicion to keeping yourself fed and clothed. The memoir reads like a spy thriller, with extraordinary detail as to what life was like in the USSR during those turbulent times. It has elements of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. Nora describes what it was like as a young person to live in a world where the threat of violence was constant: her father would patrol the house with a guard dog and a loaded pistol before going to bed each night, and he and colleagues were the subject of assassination attempts. She recalls a broken family life, explaining how her father had an affair with her governess, Ursula, which prompted her mother’s suicide.

Her father would then marry his girlfriend, and when her former partner was released from prison, he came to their house.

“Many things happen which ought not to happen, but who can say what is right and what is wrong?,” she recalls her father telling the jilted husband.

“Ursula tells me you a good chess player. So am I. Sit down and let us have a game. She will belong to the winner.”

She describes the type of education the Soviet system had introduced, her discovery of religious worship, having been brought up in a world where God was never mentioned, and a life that lurched from the trappings of success to being homeless and on the run.

Above all, both Nora and John tell their incredible story without any pretence or exaggeration, a story of two fascinating lives lived in the middle of political upheaval that rocked the 20th century – and done so with honesty, compassion and thought.

Nora and John: The Russian Love Story. By Nora and John Murray, GB Publishing, £14.99

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