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Slut-Shaming by Lend-Lease

How Soviet women paid a price for associating with allied soldiers


Russian women who associated with Soviet allies during World War II were subjected to unusually harsh persecution. This was especially true in the north of the country that saw the arrival of thousands of U.S. and British sailors. For having contact with these foreigners, Soviet women received the same severe punishment meted out to Nazi collaborators: charges of treason and 10 years in a forced labour camp. HSE Associate Professor Liudmila Novikova studied how and why this policy shaped their destinies. Her research drew on unpublished memoirs, letters and documents from Russian archives as well as reports of allied missions in Arkhangelsk.

Guests in the City

In 1942, ship’s doctor William Moore wrote in his diary: ‘[T]he captain brought the crew together and warned them of the dangers of women and Russian wine, called vodka that, at 50 per cent alcohol, is a deadly poison for the British.’

These were the instructions to the crew before landing in Soviet Arkhangelsk. Because the ships usually had an extended stay, contact with the local population was unavoidable. This ‘danger,’ however, did not stop the sailors, who were happy to go ashore. William Moore had come to the Soviet Union on one of the ‘Arctic convoys’ — caravans of ships bringing allied aide as part of the lend-lease programme.

The U.S. lend-lease programme lent or leased equipment, weapons, raw materials, goods and services to countries of the anti-Hitler coalition.

The U.S. and Britain committed to providing these supplies during the Moscow Conference of 1941 and, that same year, the first convoy of transport vessels and escort ships left Liverpool port in England headed for Arkhangelsk.

The ships did not return empty—the Soviet side reciprocated by sending back such strategic raw materials as ore, platinum, gold and timber. The ships usually remained moored for from two to six weeks while they were loaded and prepared for departure. During that time, foreign sailors thronged the city. It was far more dangerous, however, for the locals to have contact with them than it was for the British to drink Russian vodka: any Soviet citizen who fraternized with foreigners faced severe political persecution.  

Commissars Sound the Alarm

As the main destination of the Arctic convoys in 1941-1945, Arkhangelsk received the most foreigners, said Ms Novikova. Local townspeople were wary but hospitable. The British and Americans noted the friendly people, but were also amazed at the conditions on the Soviet home front—'a complete lack of food and almost all other goods.’

The U.S. and British missions in the city had 65 employees. From 1941 until mid-1944, Arkhangelsk and the nearby port of Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk) received 222 ships with 15,540 crewmembers.

The visiting sailors were eager to visit the locals, bringing food or inviting residents to their own repasts. The Soviet authorities also organized so-called ‘Interclubs’ that, in addition to propaganda lectures, offered dance parties, concerts and movies. In August 11-31, 1942 alone, almost 13,800 people visited the Arkhangelsk Interclub. As many as 70% of them were foreigners, while the rest were listed simply as ‘other visitors’ by the club’s director.

Most of the ‘others’ were young local women whom the visiting sailors had invited. Vsevolod Merkulov, Head of the People’s Commissariat of State Security (PCSS) of the Soviet Union, mentioned these women in his report to Stalin in 1944. The sailors established ties with them, he wrote, ‘by bribing them with various gifts, mainly food.’

She ‘gulped down all the food,’ wrote William Moore about one of the women thus ‘bribed.’ ‘It must have been hunger that compelled her to come to our mess hall crowded with young men.’

At the end of his diary, Moore includes Russian translations of such phrases as ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘thank you’ and, of course, ‘I love you.’ It is unknown whether the ship’s doctor ever made use of the latter, but Soviet security agencies were sounding the alarm: it was becoming increasingly difficult to control contacts of an ‘intimate and domestic nature’ between the sailors and local women.

Eliminating Suspicious Persons

By July 1944, the PCSS had identified more than 1,150 ‘ties’ between foreigners and local women, 150 of which were more or less steady. Soviet secret police blamed three factors for the problem: provocation, espionage and the corrupting influence of capitalism.

Participants of a Regional Party Committee Bureau meeting on July 3, 1943, pointed out that excessively close contact with visiting allies was as dangerous as helping German spies was.

First came calls for vigilance, then came repression. ‘Suspicious persons’ were sent from Arkhangelsk to remote outposts of the region. From 1943 onward, most were women.

A wartime body called the City Defense Committee deported the women without trial. Their offence: close relationships with foreign sailors. But ‘close’ did not necessarily mean ‘intimate.’ Although accusations of prostitution were common and some women were described as having ‘no permanent occupation’ and as ‘earning gifts’ from foreigners, women could be sent away for any reason at all.

The list of deportees included woman loggers, welders, coal furnace workers, street cleaners, hairdressers, pharmacists and teachers. They were also accused of socially irresponsible actions and speculative dealings.

If women sold some of the ‘food, cigarettes and soap that sailors had given them’ at the market, the authorities used it as proof that they were only in the relationships for the money.

Unmarried women, those waiting for husbands to return from the army and war widows — all were branded as criminals, whether or not they had children. Several mothers with children ages 5 – 12 were included in the first large group of deportees in the summer of 1943.

Criminal Love

Charges of criminality were levelled not only for one-time contacts in return for food: steady relationships were even more dangerous. Marriages between locals and the visiting sailors were a regular occurrence right up until the fall of 1945, but that did not save the women, who were forbidden from leaving the Soviet Union.

Ship’s clerk John Zimny wrote in a report dated July 2, 1944: ‘They were living in the Intourist hotel. First, they were ordered to move out of the hotel, then they were refused food ration cards, and finally, they were fired from their jobs. All of this happened only after their husbands sailed away on the ship convoys…They were humiliated publicly, branded as traitors and experienced many unpleasant incidents. Their applications for exit visas were constantly delayed.’

The women waited for years to receive travel documents, only to have their applications denied. The last ray of hope that the families might be reunited was crushed in February 1947 when the Soviet Union banned marriages with foreigners. Any hope that the women had of living a quiet life at home was also lost: after the initial wave of deportations, women accused of having had contact with visiting allies were charged with treason and sent to the gulag.

Second Wave of Persecution

For her affair with a British sailor, Arkhangelsk actress Zoya Bredikhina was sentenced to eight years in a correctional labour camp. Librarian Elena Ivanova, who had a son by a British telegraph operator, received 10 years of hard labour. A waitress named Anna Ogarkova, along with her daughter whom she had with non-commissioned officer John Buswell, was exiled in 1944 until the end of the war. Ogarkova was arrested once more in 1949 and sentenced to 10 years in the camps for treason.

The severity of the punishment is striking. The allies were not the enemy. En route to the Soviet Union, the convoys were shelled by German planes, torpedoed by submarines and blown up by sea mines. Sailors often arrived in Soviet ports with injuries or died on the return trip home.

Women who had associated with foreign sailors were charged with political crimes under Article 58, just as collaborators who had voluntarily served in the Nazi administration in occupied territories were sentenced. 

What’s more, the persecution of women who had associated with allied soldiers was harsher and lasted longer. ‘The first wave of repression in the liberated areas was the most severe,’ said Liudmila Novikova. ‘The collaborators were regularly sentenced to death. But those passions subsided after the winter of 1943-1944 and the punishments became more lenient. However, the opposite happened in Arkhangelsk: women who had already served out their time in exile could be brought before a tribunal and given lengthy prison sentences.’

Initiative and Fear

As a rule, these women were sent to the gulag only after 1945. The logic behind this, however, is difficult to fathom. The supposed threat from their previous association with foreigners took on additional force, even though the military threat had passed. The study’s author posits that three factors contributed to the severity of the punishments meted out: the initiative of local authorities, their suspicion of the population and the fear of influence from foreigners.

The country’s leaders knew of and sanctioned the repressive measures in general, and left it to the regional authorities to decide whom they would crack down on and how. In their search for domestic enemies among women, the authorities in the Soviet North clearly followed the path of least resistance. Once the authorities had singled out their victims, they punished them as a warning to others: Russia’s northern region has traditionally been a place of exile, and the authorities felt they should use an iron glove to keep its recalcitrant population in check.

But even that was not the main point. The foreign sailors were representatives of ‘successful and victorious capitalism.’ To associate with them was to fall under the spell of the West.

As British sailor James Rhodes wrote home in 1944, the Russians ‘are shocked when they learn how we live and what we have. It’s all so different from what they were told.’

Such ‘shocks’ could shake Soviet citizens’ faith in government propaganda: the West was not so bad after all, and socialism was not so glorious. Fascism had been defeated and the war was over, but now a new conflict, the Cold War, had begun. In this battle of the world’s two largest political and economic systems, Soviet authorities would not forgive citizens who had fraternized with former allies.

Hidden Truth

Politicians exploited women’s personal lives and their attempts to cope with wartime hardships for their own purposes. It remains unknown how many of these women the Soviet system ground under its heel. More than 100 hundred were deported from Arkhangelsk in the first wave, but it is more difficult to ascertain the number sent to the camps during the post-war period. ‘To this day, we don’t know how many women of Arkhangelsk were persecuted for associating with allied soldiers, and it will probably be impossible to nail this down in the near future,’ said Liudmila Novikova.

The materials needed to investigate these events from 1945-1949 are stored in the regional branch of the Federal Security Service archives. Access to the documents is restricted for 75 years from the date they were created. For now, only the direct descendants of the accused are allowed to view their personal files.


Author of the study:
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, June 21, 2020