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Saturday, 4 January, 2003, 12:43 GMT
Russian love story crosses the decades
It is a place that has doled out adversity and hardship in generous measures for centuries.
But there was something about Kapitolina and her story that haunted me.
Perhaps it was my first sight of her - in a black and white photograph in a book about the forgotten Russian sweethearts of World War II.
Kapitolina's face was unforgettable; she looked like a young Lauren Bacall, her direct gaze reaching out from the page nearly 60 years on.
The picture was taken the year she met Thomas McAdam at a dance hall in Archangel, and they fell in love.
But when the war ended, he was posted back home.
As they said a last farewell by the harbour before he set sail, he never knew his young Russian girlfriend was pregnant with their son, whom she called Stepan.
In the paranoia of the 1950s Soviet Union, Stalin showed no mercy to those who had consorted with what was now the enemy.
Kapitolina was sent to a gulag prison camp, for the crime of loving a foreigner.
For three harsh Siberian winters, she concentrated on surviving, so she could return to her son.
And she did, but she never married and she never told him about his British father until years later, when she thought it was safe.
There the story might have ended if it had not been for a listener to From Our Own Correspondent - who got in touch to say she might have the answer.
She had a friend, Graham, whose late uncle may have been the man the Panfilovs were looking for.
I could hardly believe it, more than a year later, when I found myself in London, with Kapitolina - or Lina as she's called, striding tirelessly down Oxford Street.
Now in her late 70s, Lina has at last been able to fulfil her promise to show her son his father's homeland.
And not just that - they were staying with Stepan's British cousins, Graham and Diane - cousins who had not known of each other's existence the year before.
Thanks to e-mails from Graham, Lina and Stepan had gradually filled in the missing years of Thomas's story.
They learned that he had died in 1980 after a happy and fulfilled life.
Both are sad that Stepan never had the chance to meet his father, but in his late 50s, Stepan is philosophical.
He has found family and a welcome far warmer than he had ever expected.
We sit in a restaurant, and the noise at our table is indescribable, a cacophony of languages flowing back and forth across the table.
I lose count of the toasts drunk to Britain and to Russia, to family and friends.
It is hard to believe these four people only met a few weeks ago.
Stepan sold his car to fund the trip to meet his English cousins, and it only occurred to them they had no common language when Lina and Stepan arrived.
Friends had helped translate their e-mails.
Stepan's first words at the airport - "my angliski not good" - made Graham's heart sink.
How on earth would they talk to each other? Yet that has not been a problem.
There is a real feeling of connection between them all - the will to communicate and a few good phrase books transcending any barrier.
And I can see the family resemblance between Graham and Stepan that made them recognise each other the moment they met.
Both are good-looking men, with strong faces and bright, piercing eyes.
They swap childhood photos that show how like his father Stepan is, too.
Stepan and Graham are both keen footballers, as were their fathers.
They have talked a lot over the past few weeks - about history, about fate, about how different their lives have been growing up in such different places.
For Stepan and Lina, who both grew up under communism, family was always the most important thing.
He and Kapitolina are looking forward to Graham visiting them in Archangel next month, his first trip to Russia - likely to be just as much a culture shock as Oxford Street was to Lina.
She looks across at her son and his cousin, and a warm smile spreads across her face.
"I always believed this would happen. I put my hope in God and I knew this day would come," she says.
As I get up to go, a little unsteadily a few hours later, they are still catching up on 60 years of family history.
I notice that Graham, Dianne and Stepan have their hands over one of Kapitolina's, as if trying to reassure her that this is real, not just a dream.
Or perhaps trying to console her for the years she suffered, concealing the past from her son.
From her face though, it is clear Kapitolina has no regrets.
"I was never sorry about loving Thomas," she tells me as I leave.
"Even in the hardest times, I always remembered him with love."
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