Secret Classrooms- a Window on the Cold War a talk by John Lyon.
John was an Intelligence Corps officer who learned Russian in the Army before going up to Oxford and the talk covered this period in our history when there was a real fear that the Cold War would develop into a new war. While his talk was originally designed as a piece of history which after embargo only became public a few years ago, events in Eastern Europe- the Crimea, Ukraine etc. – give a new relevance on the need not to be caught again, when we had only one Russian speaker in MI6 at the end of the war and now have only 16 Russian speakers in the Army.
To meet the deficiency in knowledge of the Soviets’ armed forces the Government in the late 1940s set up the Joint Services School for Linguists to train translators, interpreters and intelligence officers to meet the threat in Europe of a sudden attack. John was lucky enough to be chosen to go on the course, isolated in Bodmin in Cornwall, which was described by Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s Foreign Minister, as “A school for spies”. It produced some famous alumni such as Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Bank of England Governor Eddy George, historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Peter Hall , Dennis Potter, film-maker Jack Rosenthal and a whole slew of future professors and ambassadors. The course was really a revival and development of the war-time Y Service which tracked enemy Morse Code traffic and conversations and fed them in to Bletchley Park.
The course was featured by BBC 4 which devoted a whole programme to the course and it featured in Stella Rimington’s – former head of MI5- TV programme “Watching the Russians” . One of Frederick Forsyth’s novels – The Devil’s Alternative” features Bodmin where his hero Adam Munro goes to learn Russian. The talk covers the total immersion courses where we had to reach O Level Russian in 6 weeks , the fascinating émigré lecturers with stories to tell of cannibalism in Leningrad, seeing the dead Tsar’s body in Ekaterinberg, the KGB officer who escaped because he could no longer stand the murders and torture and the pilot of the Tsar’s personal aircraft. I cover the strange military set–up in Bodmin, where, rather like in the prisoner of war camps during the war we made our own entertainment with Russian choirs, camp theatre shows in Russian- we put on The Cherry Orchard- produced a camp magazine –The Samovar-, edited by Michael Frayn, card playing in Russian etc. The difference of course compared with the war was that if we left the camp in the evening we didn’t get shot!
After the initial course graduates either went on as translators to monitor Soviet military broadcasts and conversations or, as in my case, as interpreters, after a time attached to the School of Slavonic Studies in Cambridge. After this we worked and trained in the Intelligence Corps HQ in Sussex including training on the finer arts of interrogation.