HL Deb 30 April 1947 vol 147 cc289-94

5.33 p.m.

LORD BALFOUR OF INCHRYE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give any further information on the question of Soviet-born British wives detained in Russia. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the question that stands in my name on the Order Paper. I put this question in no spirit of criticism at all, but in order that the Government may have an opportunity to report progress to this House and to the country as to whether matters are going better than hitherto. It is in no wise a political issue; it is a social question. Nevertheless its effects might tend unfortunately towards poisoning the good relations which we wish to see existing between the ordinary men and women of this country and the ordinary men and women of Soviet Russia.

In case any of your Lordships are not aware of the facts, and in order that they should be put on the record, I state them very briefly. First, during the war and just after about thirty officers and officials connected with Commissions contracted marriages with Soviet girls. Secondly, these marriages were contracted with the full knowledge and consent of the Soviet authorities who gave facilities for the marriages to take place. They were registered in Moscow for the Soviet authorities, and they were registered with His Majesty's Embassy in Moscow; indeed, one officer was given a special visa by the Soviet authorities for the particular purpose of going to marry the lady of his choice in Tiflis. Of those thirty wives about fifteen have been granted permission to come to this country, and the last permission given was in 1945. There are fifteen remaining, with some five children, and they have been told that they will never be allowed to join their husbands over here. I understand the legal position is that the wives and children are British in British law and Soviet citizens by Soviet law.

We know that the Government have made representations through all the channels available to them. They have been made by His Majesty's Ambassador, by Field-Marshal Montgomery and by the Minister of State, Mr. Hector McNeil. Mr. Speaker in another place said that he had taken up the matter with the Parliamentary delegation over here from the Soviet, and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has also made representations. We have been told that he was informed by Marshal Stalin that the matter is not one for Marshal Stalin himself but a matter for the Supreme Soviet, who had twice refused permission. I understand the main reason given by the Soviet for refusal is that Russia needs all her citizens, and that if these women were allowed to leave they would in fact be deserting their posts by leaving Soviet Russia, Russia has, I believe, 200,000,000 inhabitants, and most of these wives were employed in foreign Embassies. I do not, therefore, think the loss of womanpower to Russia could be considered very severe. Those are the facts, and I put them before your Lordships in order to refresh your Lordships' minds.

There are friends of Russia in all Parties, and I believe all Parties in this House and another place would appeal most earnestly to the Supreme Soviet to reconsider the position. Husbands and wives have their affections, and Russians love their children as we love our children over here. The parents' love for their children is a universal thing, and to them this separation is a terrible blow. We do not question Russia's right to her own laws, and we do not ask for any alteration of her laws and regulations. What we do ask for is a concession for these wives in their own interests, so that with their children they can join their husbands. We ask that concession, also, on the grounds of helping to make for good understanding between the ordinary-people of the two countries. I do hope that what we say to-day in this House may be read in Russia, and that those of the Supreme Soviet may be big in mind in their generosity of gesture, and hearten not only the fifteen husbands affected by the separation from their wives and children, but also millions of men and women who wish to see nothing stand in the way of a better understanding between the people of Soviet Russia and ourselves.

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, it may seem to your Lordships not inappropriate if I say a few words on this question, for two reasons. One is that I am perhaps the only member of your Lordships' House who for a period of months had the privilege—and a very fascinating privilege it was—in my capacity as a very junior officer in the British Military Mission in Moscow, to see unveiled before me the spectacle of susceptible British hearts going down like ninepins before the Veras, Tamaras and Natachas. The second reason is that I have been approached by one of these unfortunate victims—one of these compulsory grass widowers—who apparently represents eight of the total number. He has asked me to intervene, and as a result of that I consider it my duty to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in putting his question has laid stress on the fact that the Foreign Office and His Majesty's Government are already doing their best in this matter. But I cannot help feeling that one thing we should keep well in mind is that in adopting this attitude the Russians are not doing anything new; they are the victims of their own heredity. If we go back to the 16th century chronicles of the Swede Olearius, the 17th century account by the Lord Carlisle of the day of his mission to the father of Peter the Great, and, nearer our times, to Dostoiewsky's letters, they all bear witness to the double horror the Russians have of foreigners being on their soil and looking at Russia, and of Russians being on foreign soil and looking at things in other countries. In a word, we are up against a very deep-rooted instinct. So, while I should like to feel optimistic, I confess I do not feel unduly so, and I think it is unlikely we shall end by getting satisfaction.

I should like to make four short points. I gather that one of the Russian objections to letting the remainder of these ladies leave Russia is said to be based on criticism of certain of these ladies themselves; the English are said to have chosen the wrong ones. I know in point of fact that one or two of these ladies, since they left Russia, have behaved in a manner which is a trifle unusual. They have my sympathy; I have no doubt that the wicked "West must have gone to their heads. But the Russians really have not a leg to stand on so far as this argument goes, for the simple reason that, as I think anybody who knows Russia will agree, if it had been desired that these ladies should not at any time fraternize with our compatriots, no one would doubt that the Russians had ample means of dissuading them from doing so. The second point is that out of thirty of them, fifteen have nevertheless been allowed to leave Russia, and that, I think, must be set to Russia's credit, even though probably it could be argued that having let fifteen go out of thirty, it would be relatively easy to let the other fifteen go. The third point is that we should not forget, that the Russians have an Asiatic fear of "losing face." I trust that the noble Lord who is going to answer for His Majesty's Government will be able to tell us that it has been suggested to the Russian Government that there is surely a good deal more face to be lost in the end by retaining in Russia fifteen women and a few children our of a population of close on 180,000,000 than by releasing them, especially now that a definite ruling has been given against future marriages of Russians to foreigners. The fourth point is that there are apparently some thirty wives of United States citizens who find themselves in this position. I am extremely loth to suggest that Russia would definitely pay more attention to the United States than ourselves, but I should be glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, what is the attitude which the United States have taken up with regard to this question, because it seems to me that in this particular case a combined operation might possibly be: more effective than an isolated campaign.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has performed a public service by raising this matter, and I should like to thank him for the spirit of his remarks. Indeed he has really said everything on this subject that I would wish to say, and has said much of it better than I could have said it. I am afraid that the noble Lord who spoke last did not give me notice of his last point regarding the attitude of the United States, which is one of interest and importance, and perhaps he would allow me to communicate with him later regarding it.

I am afraid I have very little indeed to lay before your Lordships of which you are not already fully aware. As the whole House knows, this matter has been the subject of persistent and forceful representations by His Majesty's Government, but I regret that I cannot report any further developments to-day. The matter has been pressed not only by our Ambassador but also by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, when he visited Moscow, and—I do not think this was mentioned—by the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Bevin, at a personal interview with Premier Stalin during the recent conference. M. Stalin then said that he had twice raised this matter with the Supreme Soviet but that he saw little prospect of their agreeing. As your Lordships will be aware, since these marriages took place a law has been enacted forbidding the marriage of Soviet citizens with foreigners.

During the visit to this country of Mr. Kuznetsov and other members of the Supreme Soviet the opportunity was taken to request Mr. Kuznetsov, who is Chairman of the Soviet of Nationalities, to consider the case favourably and to do all that he ean on his return to the Soviet Union to secure permission for these women to rejoin their husbands. His Majesty's Government expect to hear in due course the result of this approach. As I say, we feel strongly about the justice of our case and we shall certainly not let the matter drop. We entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, that Russia would be doing a service not only to herself but to her own best friends in this country if she were able to grant this eminently reasonable request.