105. Taking Tea with the KGB?

By Peter Fraenkel

The recent death of Fred Jarvis at the age of 95 has brought some memories to mind. Jarvis was long known as the head of the Teachers’ Union of Britain.  I, however, had known him before he became that. We were, at the time, both students and he was head of the British Students’ Union. The year was 1950. I was leading a team sent by NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students, on a debating tour of British universities. 

We were lodged in a hotel in Endsleigh Street, Bloomsbury, just   opposite the NUS’ own offices. In the same hotel they had also quartered student representatives from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and several other countries. We met for breakfast and often for tea. Most of these students were attending a meeting of the recently formed International Union of Students (IUS) with headquarter in Prague. We felt a little uncomfortable: were they trying to turn the IUS into a Moscow-dominated organization? The British representatives included Fred Jarvis. The South African student body suggested that I sit in on this meeting and report on it for our student paper. I had no voting rights. In fact, the South African body had not yet decided whether to join the IUS. 

The largest delegation was the Soviet one.  We were a little puzzled about their leader. He looked too old to be a student. In fact, checking on him now, 70 years later, I see Alexander Nikolaevich Shelepin would have been 12 to 14 years older than any of us western students.

One of the westerners chuckled.  It might have been Fred Jarvis. “Student? He looks more like a party apparatchik to me, maybe a secret policeman.”

A joke. Who would dream of sending a secret policeman to a mere students’ do?

Shelepin got up: tall, broad shouldered with a typically Slavonic face. Impressive. He carried authority. He spoke in Russian but had an interpreter by his side. He moved a motion that the Yugoslav student association be expelled from the IUS. Why? A number of Albanian students had been expelled from their university and been arrested but the Yugoslavs, their neighbours, had done nothing to support them.

It was a cock-and-bull story and all of us knew it. Jarvis got up. The true reason, he said was obvious: Marshal Tito had, a while earlier, broken with Stalin. The Yugoslav students had refused to denounce Tito. However this provided no valid grounds for expelling anyone from a students’ association.

Stalin had allegedly boasted he would lift his little finger and there would be no more Tito. But this had not happened. Tito was still in power and was gaining support in the West.

Jarvis went on the attack. He did not bring a sheaf of telegrams.  He only read from a small cutting from a British daily: It listed several Soviet academics who had apparently ‘disappeared’. What had the Soviet students’ association done to protest about that?

Shelepin expressed outrage. These were wicked calumnies which he would refute. He would, however, require a little time.

But next morning, already, he appeared with a sheaf of telegrams which he waved at us. Doctor X had not ‘disappeared mysteriously’ – as had been alleged. He had taken up a professorship at Novosibirsk.  A new book of his was due to appear in the spring. As for Professor Y, he was on a sabbatical and at a rest home in the Crimea, also writing a book.  Shelepin droned on, reading out telegram after telegram.

Of course there was no way any Westerner could have checked these assertions.

Eventually, most western student bodies walked out of the IUS. My article for the South African student paper recommended that the NUSAS keep out: “Don’t touch them with a bargepole!”

And not long after the Soviet news agency Tass reported that Alexander Nikolaevich Shelepin had been appointed head of the KGB!

The get-together in that Bloomsbury Hotel had been awkward for some but hilarious for others.  The Russians and the Yugoslavs had met at an earlier IUS meeting. The Yugoslavs seemed to speak good Russian.  I guess it was the first foreign language taught in schools in the early years of the Tito regime. They had embraced the Russians as comrades and buddies, which was awkward for the Russians. One went out to make a phone call but reappeared a few moments later to call out a second one.  He, in turn, came back soon after to call out yet another. Within minutes all the Russians had found ways of escaping the hotel lounge. Those of us in the room who could afford to observe all this with detachment burst out laughing as the last fled the room.