Page last updated at 01:04 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

Cold War memories frozen in time

Russian dolls representing Soviet and Russian leaders of the 20th century. Image courtesy Samantha Heywood
The online exhibition looks back at people's experiences before the Iron Curtain was lifted

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britons are offering personal accounts of how the Cold War affected them, as part of an online exhibition.

Created by the Imperial War Museum, it brings to life the dilemmas people faced during those nervous days of stand-off between the Western and Eastern blocs.

What Lies Beneath: British Experiences of the Cold War uses 20 personal stories to illustrate themes such as ideology, nuclear threat, science, espionage and the Iron Curtain.

Here, we give snapshots of a few:


A seemingly ordinary trawler-man who plied his trade in the icy Barents Sea, north of Scandinavia and Russia, Mason Redfearn's covert activities led to brushes with the Soviet navy.

Born in Hull in 1935, Mr Redfearn joined the city's trawler fleet aged 15, working his way up from cook's assistant to skipper by 1961.

It was after one of his regular fishing trips in 1963 that he was introduced to a British naval officer, known to him as Cdr Brookes.

Camera and ship identification book
Mr Redfearn was sent for training in photography and warship recognition

"He said 'I know you go to the Barents Sea quite a lot. I would like you... to carry a camera for us and if you see anything... would you mind taking photographs'," Mr Redfearn recalls.

Supplied with a camera and recognition book of ships' silhouettes, he was asked to photograph Soviet vessels "in the interest of helping his country".

Cdr Brookes collected the films at the end of each trip.

At times, Mr Redfearn got very close to Soviet vessels and their crew.

"Sometimes they were all out watching me as I was watching them, but I never let them see that I had a camera," he remembers.

Cdr Brookes instructed Mr Redfearn to get rid of his camera in a weighted bag if his trawler was ever boarded.

It never happened but he does remember a few nerve-racking experiences, including one when a Soviet destroyer came very close to his trawler and started firing.

He was relieved to discover it was just carrying out target practice.

In the early 1970s, without explanation, Cdr Brookes stopped his visits. Mr Redfearn carried on taking photographs until his film ran out.

"I am still left with the camera and the book of silhouettes and that was it," he says.


Television audiences recognise Alexei Sayle as the star of anarchic comedies like the Comic Strip or The Young Ones, and from his off-the-wall sketch shows.

However, as a young man in Liverpool he was more readily associated with the Communist Party.

Born in 1952, his immersion in left-wing politics began with an unusual upbringing at the hands of parents who were strongly committed to communist ideology.

Alexei Sayle
Sayle's comedy was often political, as with radio show Lenin of the Rovers

"It was a bit like having Radio Moscow on all the time. If you bought a Superman comic they would say... it [was] capitalist propaganda," he recalls.

His father's job in the railways afforded them free travel beyond the Iron Curtain to the borders of the Soviet Union.

Young Alexei found Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria very different from the West.

"There was no advertising and what packaging there was, was often done in this just very extraordinary alien style," he says.

"Of course, there was only one of everything. So there would be toothpaste, pen, shoe. That was very striking."

At a time when few westerners could visit Eastern Europe, to Mr Sayle, conventional holidays sounded exotic: "Two weeks in Blackpool? Wow man, that's weird. I had no experience of that."

Around the age of 15, he joined the Young Communist League and later signed up to a Maoist organisation. By the mid-1970s, he was no longer active in left-wing politics.

However, he adds: "I still would adhere to those philosophical and economic ideas of Marxism that I got when I was 16."


Best known for designing the sets for James Bond classics including Dr No, Goldfinger and Moonraker, Sir Kenneth Adam's "War Room" in Dr Strangelove is an enduring Cold War image.

He had arrived in Britain aged 13 in 1934 when his Jewish family abandoned their native Berlin after the Nazis took power in Germany.

When World War II broke out, Sir Kenneth was studying architecture in London. He designed air raid shelters, so avoiding internment with many other German Jewish refugees.

He later joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, which gave logistical backing to the Army, before serving as an RAF fighter pilot.

Sketch of the War Room from Dr Strangelove
Sir Kenneth sketched out designs for the War Room, which US President Ronald Reagan became convinced existed

After the war, he got a job with a production company and went on to design sets which housed the spies, villains and megalomaniacs of the James Bond series.

But it was his work on Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb that best represented the Cold War era.

He believes the film's humorous approach to nuclear annihilation was "the only way... to sell it to the audience".

"You can't do a film about the destruction of the world, unless you do it the way we did as a black comedy, I think. It was too horrifying," he says.

However, he admits the film was still "very frightening in many ways, even though we made fun of it all the time".

During its production, life was imitating art: "It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis [when, in 1962, the US confronted the Soviet Union over its nuclear weapons on the island]. We were really scared."

One of his best known sets for Dr Strangelove was the "War Room". It was so realistic that former US President Ronald Reagan asked to see the room when he was being shown around the White House.

"He really believed there was such a thing," says Sir Kenneth.


Much of Peter Kennard's work over two decades was focused around anti-war themes.

Notably, his images were used by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) during its 1980s protests against the development of cruise missiles.

Born in London in 1949, his strong beliefs developed during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations he took part in while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Anti-missile poster
Mr Kennard expressed his views without joining political groups

There, he began creating photomontages.

"When you get involved in political things, photography becomes more important," he explains.

Mr Kennard created posters - unpaid - for CND because he wanted to challenge the way Cold War images had become "acceptable" in popular culture, such as a best-selling poster of a mushroom cloud.

"I wanted to make a resource for anti-war protestors... [and] also trigger off anti-war feelings in people or trigger off thinking about it," he says.

"I have been accused of making propaganda but I don't believe it's propaganda. I just try and show what's actually going on."

Although he believes artists with strong political views should express them through their work, he never wanted to "get involved in the mechanics" of CND and so never joined.


As an engineer on UK rocket programmes, Richard Tremayne-Smith experienced the "space race" first-hand before taking up senior roles at the British National Space Centre.

Born in 1949, he fed a hunger for science by plastering the walls of his bedroom in Aldershot, Hampshire, with posters about space travel.

"There were grand designs of how astronauts might look," recalls Mr Tremayne-Smith.

Richard Tremayne-Smith
Mr Tremayne-Smith found Soviet space technology "basic"

In 1965, he started a six-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, Hampshire. He saw massive strides in technology as the Soviet Union and US led the space race.

"In the early days it was still full of optimism and there were a lot of interesting projects," he says.

"Everyone in the Civil Service had to sign the Official Secrets Act but, being at RAE, there were extra talks about being approached by people with strange accents at the local bus stop."

While the world was gripped by the moon landing in 1969, Mr Tremayne-Smith believes it was done for the wrong reasons - "too much for prestige or to beat the Russians".

Britain's achievements were modest in comparison. In 1971, it launched the Prospero satellite on the Black Arrow rocket but the programme was cancelled.

Mr Tremayne-Smith says: "[There] was a desire to be independent but... could we really afford to develop as well as maintain and support this independently?"

Developing rockets was considered important by all Cold War nations because of their military applications, he says.

And while at times it looked as if the Soviets were winning the race, Mr Tremayne-Smith says: "They weren't because they were using such basic technology."


Marie-Lyse Cantacuzino Ruhemann's family were separated by the Iron Curtain and - having been sent to Britain as a child - she later gave refuge to fellow Romanians fleeing communism.

She had been born in Bucharest in 1931 but, while it initially seemed Romania would remain neutral during World War II, by March 1940 her parents had decided it would be safer for her mother to take her abroad.

Her father stayed to run his architectural business in Bucharest and, after the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, tried to escape by boat to Istanbul in March 1948.

Uprising in Romania
Ceausescu's communist regime came to an end with a popular uprising

He was arrested and spent five years in two notoriously brutal prisons, Jilava and Aiud, from which many - including one of Ms Ruhemann's uncles - did not return.

Ms Ruhemann did not hear from him until his release, when he was re-arrested and sent to work in the Danube Canal Penal Colony where hundreds died of ill-treatment and exhaustion.

She believes the communist regime targeted her father because he came from an old aristocratic Romanian family and had family living in the West.

"After that he was very wary because anything to do with the West could put him in [prison] again."

Despite being smuggled out of jail by British diplomats, her father died in 1960 without ever seeing his family again.

Another uncle was imprisoned once for trying to flee the country, then jailed for a further nine years after telling someone at a birthday party he had listened to a BBC broadcast.

His family came to Britain in 1964 after friends in the West paid the Romanian government through an intermediary. Others would also seek refuge at Ms Ruhemann's London home.

"On and off I had quite a lot of people staying. Some were on the way to Canada."

Communism came to a violent end in Romania, when a popular uprising in 1989 saw oppressive leader Nicolae Ceausescu tried and shot for crimes against the state.

"I think it was partly because he was so awful that they were afraid he might... start all over again," adds Ms Ruhemann.

Print Sponsor


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific