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Write back in the USSR

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Marina and her father
Slava Aidov had been imprisoned for trying to obtain a printing press
In the depths of the Cold War, the daughter of an imprisoned Soviet dissident received a message from across the Iron Curtain that changed her family's life.

In June 1971, Marina Aidova was eight years old, living in the Soviet city of Kishinev. Her father, Slava, was imprisoned in a camp for political prisoners. When his family was allowed a three-hour visit, it took a two-day railway journey to reach him, paid for by her mother donating blood.

When her mother, Lera, found that Slava had been on hunger strike, she too began her own protest by only eating one piece of bread a day.

And then, into this bleak backwater of the Cold War, a letter arrived. It was a postcard addressed to Marina with a picture of an unfamiliar town. "With love from Newbury. Berks. England. Harold and Olive."

"When the first letter came it was like something from another planet. We were living in such a closed society that it was like getting a message from a UFO," says Marina, now aged 43, and speaking on a visit to London, where the story of this unexpected exchange is being published as a book.

"We knew that England existed somewhere, but it was in a world that had nothing to do with us. And the idea that this letter had come through the Iron Curtain seemed unbelievable."

Lost worlds

The postcard had come from Harold Edwards, a 73-year-old antiquarian bookseller, and his wife, Olive, prompted by an article published by Amnesty International, which listed the names of the children of imprisoned dissidents.

Letter graphic
Letters were sometimes intercepted by the Soviet security services
Marina sent a letter in reply, and so started a 15-year correspondence between Harold and Olive, Marina, Lera and, when he was released, Slava.

Shunned by neighbours who didn't want to be seen to be sympathising with the family of a dissident prisoner, Marina says that the support of these unexpected letters saved her mother from a nervous breakdown.

"My mother was living in a city where people were afraid to talk to her, it was a very lonely life. To receive these letters was a sign that someone cared."

Because the letters were read by censors, they carefully avoided politics and focused instead on everyday interests - books, gardening, television, how their children and then grandchildren were getting on at school.

They were ordinary stories about ordinary lives - but swapped at a time when it was extraordinary to have such contacts between families from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

Curtain raised

Marina, a translator in what is now Moldova, says her family were fascinated by the details of English life glimpsed through the letters because official information was so tightly controlled.

Marina Aidova
Now and then: Marina was eight when the letters began
"I knew about England only through Dickens, television programmes such as the Forsyte Saga, and news reports of striking miners and demonstrations."

The exchanges meant that part of 1970s Newbury reached Kishinev - Marina stopped traffic with a red bell-bottomed outfit from Marks and Spencer.

With the Soviet Union crumbling in the late 1980s, Marina was able to travel to the West. But her first taste of this new world was bitter-sweet.

"I was going to the West, taking my first breath of freedom," she says. But when her train arrived in West Berlin, her first conversation with the free world was a bunch of drunk teenagers shouting "Russian swine" at her.

There were other surprises ahead when she reached the UK. Why would people buy jeans that were ripped and why, when there were no food shortages, were people eating muesli?

And even though the Soviet dissidents campaigned for free speech, they wanted something more profound than consumerism and the freedom to shop.

"Many dissidents emigrated - but my father always said that if he had the choice between going to the East, which meant to the prisons, or to the West, he would go the East.

"He said it was his fate, his country. He didn't perceive the West as the free country, but as being harsh, with aggressive capitalism."

Lost art

If the book, From Newbury With Love, evokes the lost worlds of the Cold War, it's also a reminder of an era when people wrote each other letters, rather than e-mails and texts.

Harold and Olive, Slave and Lera
Harold and Olive, Slava and Lera, who never got to meet
And Marina says she regrets the lost pleasures of the letter.

"You looked at the stamp, you opened the letter, you smelt it. First, you read it very quickly, and then in the evening, when the children were in bed, my mum would take a glass of wine, light a cigarette and read and re-read and really enjoy the letter. It's physical, you see their handwriting, you keep the letters."

Harold and Olive had died by the time Marina was able to travel to Britain. But Slava and Lera are both alive and living in Kishinev - and in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall was pulled down, Marina got to visit Newbury.

"We came to Newbury and walked in their garden, looked at the apple tree and stood where the letters had been written," she says.

The unexpected relationship at such a bleak time, Lera said in a letter to Harold and Olive's daughter, had been "a gift of fate".


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I'll be honest, I filled up reading this. What a wonderful story.
Kathryn Anderson, Bradford

It would be good for us all to read stories like this more often. Firstly to know that such a seemingly small good deed can make such a positive difference and secondly to be reminded that our western socio-economic systems may be better than what most other people have but we still have a long way to go in regards to acting responsibly towards our fellow human beings.
Simon Densley, London

I'm sat here typing with tears rolling down my face, that was such a moving story. I'm absolutely gutted for them that they never go to meet the eccentric couple who had kept there spirits up during those dark lonely years. It just goes to show that anyone can make a difference to someone else's lives.
Bobby Deaves, Liverpool

Really enjoyed the story, but felt something sharp touching my heart when I realised that this story is about the past of my country, that so many people suffered at that time and young generation still feels the after-taste of those times.
Natalie Ivanova, Russia, Saint-Petersburg

Very inspiring story. I grew up in Kishinev, I lived on the same street (Lenin Street) as the Aidov family.
Eugene Girin, Queens, USA

A great story indeed. Well done, Marina! But what many people who had tears in their eyes while reading the story don't realize is that many Moldovans are still living behind a curtain - a visa and poverty curtain. Visa restrictions for Moldovans are very harsh, and the majority of people could not afford to travel even if they were allowed to. Sure, we now know not only Dickens, but also Ali G, but for many here, in Moldova, England is as far removed as it was in 1971.
Natalia Catrinescu, Chisinau, Moldova

What a fantastic story, the small things in life matter,
Vino Lingam, London

Those were the days, when letters brought happiness in a bleak time. Nowadays letters only bring bills.
Johnny, London

Take note... the small things in life matter, nice to read a uplifting story
Rob, Stevenage

What a wonderful story. I was growing up in Newbury around this time and still consider it as my home town. It is fascinating to learn that this hand of friendship was reaching out across the world to those behind the Iron Curtain from so close by. It brings home the fact that one person (or couple) can make a difference in this troubled world of ours.
Paul Thompson, Devizes

Wonderful story. "It was like getting a message from a UFO". Yes, I have to agree. First time, I listened bootlegged The Beatles album only in 1980 and we thought we do something illegal. It was almost underground party!
Nickolay Alexejev, Moscow, Russia

This is a story that brings dual recognition. 1) What the Soviet countries have gained from their new found "freedoms" 2) What we in the west have lost, in respect for others and our selfish pursuit of "something for nothing"
Ricky Campbell, Carrickfergus

What a touching story. This is exactly the sort of thing that the post Cold War generation should read to understand what the world was like at a human level between World War 2 and the start of the 1990s.
Andrew Cunningham, Cardiff

What a wonderful story. It reminded me of the letters between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel in 84 Charing Cross Road. They didn't meet either, but became close friends through their correspondence. I read "84" again only last night.
Maggie, Morecambe

As soon as I saw the headline I knew this story would be about Harold and Olive Edwards. They were close friends of my family and the warmest, kindess, most humane and generous people you could hope to meet. Both from poor working-class backgrounds, they put their left wing principles into practice in numerous self-sacrificing ways. This was one of them, and when I knew them best, in their later years, they talked frequently about this unseen Russian family they had befriended. They made efforts to find gifts that would give pleasure and relief, without causing any ideological difficulties, and I can vividly remember Olive talking with real glee about buying little children's outfits and toys to send, although with the knowledge that not all the parcels would reach their destination and they would never meet the recipients. Harold and Olive: how delighted you would be to know that your imaginative generosity and dauntless spirit has born such fruit. I'm proud to have known you and I'll never forget you.
Natasha de Chroustchoff, Fishguard

I remember in the late Sixties reading a whole page advert about someone called Anthony Gray being held prisoner in China. There was an address to send a post card asking for his release. I sent that postcard, I was about 14-15 at the time, and remember feeling very happy when I read, not too long afterwards that he had been released. It was the first card of many cards and letters I have subsequently sent as I joined Amnesty International. I still have no idea who Anthony Gray (Grey?) was or is or what happened to him after his release.
Nina Gallety, Nottingham

What a touching story. We take so much for granted in current times, our freedom to think, to travel, to live ... it's hard to comprehend how it could be any other way.
Joelle, Hemel Hempstead

What a fantastic story, this brought tears to my eyes. The art of letter writing is a much missed skill.
Joanna Clake, Long Eaton Nottingham

What a wonderful story. It shows the importance of normality in the life of families living under stress. Those letters kept the family sane in an insane world beyond their control.
Carys Williams, Penygroes

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