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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Love, War and Spies at the Interclub

MTPavlenko holding the photo of a U.S. sailor, which she hid behind her wallpaper when the NKVD came to arrest her.
STRUNINO, Vladimir Region -- Valentina Pavlenko first met U.S. seaman Bill Rowgraft at a large dance party in Arkhangelsk.

Pavlenko, then 15, knew she would pay a heavy price for falling in love with the bright-eyed sailor depicted in a photo that she has kept for the past 65 years. Little did she know how much.

"I hid his picture behind the wallpaper when the NKVD came for me," said Pavlenko, now 80.

Pavlenko is among thousands of girls from three northern ports who frequented Interclubs, clubs established by the Soviet government for foreign seamen during World War II. The clubs -- located in Arkhangelsk, Murmansk and Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk) -- offered movies, music and dancing to sailors working in Arctic convoys, which delivered vital supplies under the Lend Lease program from August 1941 to May 1945.

A total of 1,400 merchant ships -- accompanied variously by destroyers, anti-submarine trawlers, minesweepers and cruisers -- delivered the supplies from Britain and the United States to the Soviet Union. By 1943, the number of staff at the British military mission in Arkhangelsk alone totaled 80 people.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Pavlenko showing photographs from her youth, including one of her first love, U.S. sailor Bill Rowgraft, in her apartment in the Vladimir region village of Strunino, where she moved after being released from a labor camp in the Arctic Circle.

Local residents were not permitted to fraternize with the foreigners except within the confines of the Interclubs, recalled Lidia Chernyayeva, 88, from Severodvinsk.

Britain and the United States also frowned on such contacts, and the British mission staff was instructed to avoid contacts with Soviet citizens, said Yury Alexandrov, head of the Arctic Convoy veterans organization.

The Interclubs were always packed, however. Cheerful music and dancing filled the Arkhangelsk club, located in an old mansion along the banks of the Dvina River, Pavlenko said. "It was the most alluring place in the whole city," she said.

Courtesy of Valentina Pavlenko
Pavlenko and Bella shortly after Pavlenko's release from an Arctic labor camp.

It was on May 8, 1943, that the blue-eyed Bill Rowgraft first escorted her home and kissed her hand. From that evening, they met almost every day for the next four months. Then he boarded a ship and disappeared.

A similar fate awaited other girls. In 1946, when the British military mission pulled out of Arkhangelsk, Pavlenko witnessed a stampede on the pier. Girls wept as they saw their boyfriends sailing away.

Courtesy of Valentina Pavlenko
Pavlenko and Bella, then 15. They were already living in Strunino at the time.

Plainclothes men photographed the crowd, Pavlenko said. Soon many of the girls were arrested, accused of being enemies of the people.

A few girls were allowed to marry foreigners, mostly British mission staff, although they were never permitted to leave Russia, said Olga Golubtsova, a Severodvinsk journalist and author, who has written extensively about Interclub romances. Only one woman was granted a visa to join her husband, Golubtsova said. She waited five years for her papers.

Courtesy of Valentina Pavlenko
Pavlenko, center, posing with Bella, back, and her five other children in 1968.

Some relationships, however, survived a half-century of separation. British sailor Bill Greenhall married Alexandra Rasheva but had to leave with his ship. Rasheva was arrested in 1948 when she went to the British Embassy in Moscow to find out whether she could get a visa to be reunited with him, and she was sent to internal exile in Siberia. With the help of a British journalist and Pavlenko, Greenhall and Rasheva began corresponding shortly after the Soviet collapse. Greenhall wrote that he still loved her, and the two met in Britain in 1994, Pavlenko said. He asked her to stay, but after much thought she decided to return to Russia. Greenhall died the next year.

Courtesy of Valentina Pavlenko
The photo of Bill Rowgraft that Pavlenko hid behind her wallpaper in 1946.

The NKVD arrested Pavlenko in 1946 when she was 18. After Bill Rowgraft, her first love, she had continued visiting the Interclub, dating both British and U.S. seamen. At the time of her arrest, she was corresponding with an American, Warren Bowsley, 25, who wanted to marry her. While she said she liked him, she did not love him like Rowgraft. Soon after Bowsley left, she found herself pregnant with his child. She named her daughter Bella, in honor of Bill.

Courtesy of Valentina Pavlenko
Pavlenko at the age of 15, when she started visiting the Arkhangelsk Interclub.

After her arrest, Pavlenko said, NKVD officers subjected her to sleep-deprivation interrogation techniques. For three months, the officers kept asking what she had talked about during parties at the British military mission. "I talked about love and dancing," she said in the recent interview. A military court later declared her an enemy of the people and sentenced her to six years in prison. Asked by the court if she had anything to say, she pleaded for the return of photos of Rowgraft, which had been confiscated from her apartment. The court said the photos had been thrown away.

Pavlenko was imprisoned in a labor camp in Salekhard, within the Arctic Circle. A good dancer, she became a member of the Salekhard labor camp's music and dance theater. Upon her release in 1953, she returned to Arkhangelsk to fetch her daughter, Bella, and Rowgraft's picture hidden behind the wallpaper. The people living in her apartment had found it and preserved it, Pavlenko said.

Courtesy of Valentina Pavlenko
British military mission officials and a Russian pianist posing at Arkhangelsk's Interclub in 1944. At the peak of the war, the mission's staff swelled to 80 people.
She later married a Muscovite, Yevgeny Pavlenko. Pavlenko now lives alone in the village of Strunino in the Vladimir region, exactly 101 kilometers east of Moscow. She settled here after her release in 1953, obeying a Soviet law that required former prisoners to live at least 101 kilometers away from major cities. Her husband has died, and her children have married and moved away. Age is catching up with her, and she can barely walk. But her memories remain strong. "Sometimes I dream that I am dancing with Bill at the Interclub," she said.