‘They accused my father of spying and executed him’

I met Cleopatra Maroufidou at the Greek-Russian Home for the Aged, run by the Russian church in Argyroupolis, Athens. At 93, she is alert, reads a lot, helps with the home’s library and correspondence and chats with the nurses. On her shelves are many books by Russian writers including Pushkin, Tolstoy and Akhmatova; on the walls are photographs of Russian actors, Moscow Patriarch Alexei, the Archbishop of Athens and even Ringo Starr. Maroufidou came to Greece from Russia in 1999, bringing 1,500 books and an extraordinary life story as one of the few Greeks alive who survived Stalin’s terror. She was arrested on the charge of spying, imprisoned and exiled to Kazakhstan, but as she says, «I was lucky, because if they had sent me to the gulag, I would probably have died, as did so many others.» In one of those gulags her father was executed on charges of spying for Greece. From Irkutsk to Moscow Maroufidou was born in Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, where many Greeks from southern Russia had moved in the late 19th century to work on the railway and other construction projects. The Greeks did well as technicians, tradesmen and small storeowners, and with their newly prominent position in society, the local authorities gave their name to the main street of Irkutsk. In 1930, when Stalin started his pogroms against the kulaks, the next in line were the wealthy Greeks who left the countryside and took refuge in Moscow and other big cities, as Mourafidou’s father, Adam, did. But in 1935 he was arrested for illegal possession of foreign exchange and sent to a forced labor camp hundreds of kilometers north of Moscow. «I wrote to Stalin asking permission to see my father and I went to see Kalinin [president of the Supreme Soviet] himself, who gave me permission. It was early 1937 when I arrived at the gulag, where they allowed me to stay with my father for three days. The man in charge assured me he would be out in a few months. But I found out later that in December that year, three days after the implementation of the directive against the Greeks, he was executed as a spy.» Back in Murmansk, a seaside town in northern Russia where she had been appointed accountant in a state service, she could not believe what was waiting for her. «One day after the directive, we had elections. I remember, I woke up early to put things in order at the office so I could then go and vote. Someone knocked on my door at home and I assumed someone had come from the office because I was late. It was two NKVD men who arrested me and took me to prison. I had no idea why, or where they were taking me. They kept asking me where the port was but I didn’t get around round town and I didn’t know. When, after unbearable pressure, I gave them an address, they said it proved I was a spy. «They transferred me to the women’s prison in Leningrad, where I stayed for 10 months without a trial because my file had been lost en route. Then Ezov was removed as chief of the secret service and was succeeded by Beria, who wanted to show that his predecessor was no good at his job, so he freed thousands of prisoners, including me. «A year later they arrested me again. They put me on trial for spying and exiled me to Kazakhstan. The sentence was for three years but then the war started and I stayed there five years altogether.» After the war, Mourafidou says, she contacted «old friends in high places» and went back to work, this time as a clerk in the ministry that oversaw public works in Tashkent and Uzbekistan. She never gave in to pressure to join the Communist Party. Like the vast majority of Soviet citizens, she thought Stalin was innocent of the persecution and deaths of millions of dissenters and alleged enemies of the people. «People talked about it and everyone said it was a mistake that would be corrected. People loved Stalin, and we believed he didn’t know such things were going on. We were convinced that they were done by his subordinates, without his knowledge.» Even today, Mourafidou insists people lived better lives in Russia then than now. «They had jobs. Now they have to go abroad, families separate, it’s dramatic,» she says.