Reclaiming the Individual from “The People”

 

Class of ’28 | For Margaret “Peg” Wettlin Ed’28, who died September 1 at her home in West Philadelphia, the desire “for an identity with something bigger than myself” began in a classroom at Penn. As she described in her vivid memoir, Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union, it was a freshman-year lecture in “General History” that marked her first step toward questioning American government, society, and herself. And ironically, Wettlin learned the tenets of socialism in economics classes at Penn.

“The tendency was toward the repudiation of these principles, but the very denial of an idea involves the statement of it, and I, who had never heard radical ideas before, felt that new planets were swimming into my ken,” she wrote. By 1932, as a high-school teacher in Media, Pennsylvania, the 25-year-old Wettlin was living through the Depression and trying on the role of socialist herself—albeit one who preferred to learn from life experience rather than by reading political and economic theory by Marx or Engels. “Who were these Russians who had taken upon themselves the task of building a new society?” she wondered.

That September, against the wishes of her parents and employer, she sailed for Russia, intending to stay a year. She remained there for 48.

If Wettlin was not wholly a socialist, she was certainly an idealist. Soon after her arrival, she met another in Andrei Efremoff, a young theater director and protégé of the Method Acting giant Konstantin Stanislavsky, who had co-founded the Moscow Art Theater to great acclaim in 1897. Although not a Communist, Efremoff supported the revolution, seeing it less as a political or economic movement than as one that offered personal freedom for individuals and artists. Wettlin viewed the new social order as a practical fresh start—for the Russian people and for herself. She found a job outside Moscow teaching the children of American automobile plant workers, even as her romance with Efremoff deepened.

In 1934, she and Efremoff married and set off for Outer Mongolia, where he had been commissioned to help create a revolutionary national theater in the capital city of Ulan Bator. Eager to explore the Gobi Desert, Wettlin accompanied her husband and a party of documentary filmmakers on a truncated expedition that ended with her contracting a devastating case of typhoid fever and losing the baby she had not known she was carrying.

After the couple’s return to Moscow in 1935 and the birth of a healthy son, Wettlin made her first (and what turned out to be only for many more years) visit to her homeland in July 1936. Former college friends from Penn had arranged a lecture tour, which was so successful that plans were made for a second trip.

However, when Wettlin attempted to renew her Russian residence permit later that year, she learned that Stalin’s government had decreed that foreigners living in the Soviet Union would be required to take out Soviet citizenship—or leave the country. Stunned, but deeply in love with her husband and devoted to their year-old son, Wettlin chose to become a Russian citizen.

As an increasingly paranoid Stalin initiated an escalating series of purges, Wettlin was unexpectedly “chosen” by the Soviet secret service to become an informant, an assignment of which even her husband remained unaware. The work began seemingly innocently, as she was instructed to “converse” with neighbors, friends, and colleagues about their jobs and other mundane topics, then “share” that information with the authorities. But ultimately that led to the unexplained arrests and disappearances of people she knew.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Wettlin, who had been teaching at the Foreign Language Institute in the capital, began writing and reporting for Radio Moscow. With the city under siege, she and Efremoff began an arduous odyssey that would take them and their two children from the city of Nalchik in the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea to Siberia and Chuvashia, before finally, after two harrowing years as refugees, coming “home” to Moscow.

After the war, with Stalin still in power, the freedom and personal welfare of Soviet citizens failed to improve, frustrating the couple and their children. Wettlin became a well-paid translator of Russian literature, specializing in the writings of Maxim Gorky, as Efremoff continued to work in theater. Then, for a second time, she was pressed into service with the Soviet secret police, a dark period she recalled in her memoir as slipping into an abyss of evil fueled by the credo of the end justifying the means: “Between bright moments of seeing the light I had traveled down tunnels of self-deception.” As the late Harrison Salisbury noted in his introduction to Fifty Russian Winters, Wettlin’s decision to terminate her association with the KGB, while personally cleansing, “could have cost her her life.”

Efremoff died in 1968. Wettlin continued to work as a translator (her translations of Gorky, Pasternak, and other Russian writers remain widely available and highly regarded), and produced a book on the 19th-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, fulfilling a promise to her late husband.

In 1973-74, encouraged by American family members and old friends from Penn, including classmate Helen Minton FA’28 and her husband Harold (both now deceased), Wettlin visited her homeland for the first time since 1936, and decided to return permanently. It would be another six years before her repatriation, when the State Department determined that she had become a Soviet citizen in the 1930s “under duress,” and granted her and her family U.S. citizenship. Wettlin, accompanied by her daughter Dasha and grandson Fedya, returned to Philadelphia in 1980. Her son, Andrei Jr., remained in the Soviet Union with his wife and children for another seven years before arriving in America in 1987.

Wettlin’s youthful desire for “an identity with something bigger than myself” came full-circle in the writing of Fifty Russian Winters (published in 1992), a tale she felt she could not safely tell until the advent of glasnost ended the fear of reprisals for family and friends left behind. Although she had gone to Russia in the 1930s in search of the new Russian republic, she told the Gazette in 1980 that she now believed that the individual is “the only thing in the world. There’s nothing but you … and me … and our individual fates and our individual survivals and understandings … There is no such thing as an abstraction called ‘the people.’”

—Carolyn R. Guss

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04




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