Castro and me

As diplomat’s wife, Lady Jeanne Sutherland witnessed life under Stalin and the rise of Castro. Now her letters from the time are being published.

Seven years ago, Jeanne Sutherland found a cache of letters to her family in her Highgate home. Alongside the usual subject matter of births, marriages and deaths, these letters, from Jeanne and her husband Iain to his parents, document some of the most iconic figures and prominent events of the 20th century.

The usual personal sentiments and family news sit alongside the death of Stalin, the Cuban revolution and Missile Crisis and the assassination of JFK – all witnessed from the enviable vantage point of Sir Iain’s job in the diplomatic service.

Jeanne has now organised the letters into a book, From Moscow To Cuba And Beyond, which plots the growth of a young family on a map of the world, with commentary from Sutherland herself.

“The book is political,” says Sutherland, who was born in 1927 and still lives in Highgate. “We happened to be in places where a lot of interesting events were taking place. At the same time, it’s the story of the family and how they managed to cope with things that were happening.”

Sutherland met her husband in 1952 when her work with the Foreign Office saw her posted to Moscow – then in the throes of Communism, the year before Stalin’s death in 1953.

“It was a very strange situation, it was extraordinary. It was an enigma and nobody really knew exactly what was going on,” says Sutherland. “It was a sort of mysterious place and it was sinister in parts. But if you knew the language, it was interesting to find out about the culture in-situ.”

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While in Russia, Jeanne got to fulfil her teenage ambition of visiting the country she had learned so much about when studying French, Spanish and Russian at UCL. “There were lots of compensations, but it wasn’t an easy life. We weren’t allowed to have contact with Russians except on a very official basis and even that was very restricted.

“For them, if they were known to have contact with Western diplomats then they would get into trouble. It was a slightly unreal life.”

The Sutherlands’ married in London in 1955 and a three-year stint in Belgrade followed. Afterwards, the family moved to Cuba, just in time for Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959.

“When we arrived, Cuba was in a difficult position because there was a lot of poverty but then also a very wealthy upper class who lived a pleasant life,” says Sutherland. “The thing one most remembers was the change of Castro from being what people thought was going to be a middle way liberal leader to somebody who was very much part of the Soviet and the Chinese way of life. People didn’t think he was going to become a committed Communist leader.”

In 1961, Sutherland met the man himself. “He was very charismatic was Castro. That whole period when we were in Cuba was something one doesn’t forget.”

But the glamour of wives’ coffee parties and meetings with revolutionaries was offset by the constant struggle of living in a country that was experiencing such dramatic political changes.

“Sometimes in Cuba when things got really difficult, when food and medical supplies got short and I had children, I did think. ‘What am I doing here?’” laughs Sutherland. “Sometimes you thought, ‘Why do I have to go through the difficult times of a revolution when it is not my problem?’ But I wanted to stay, it was so interesting. When it’s happening you’re very busy with it, so you don’t think about it.”

The Sutherlands were closely followed by political drama wherever they were posted. Just 10 months into their stay in America, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. “Our time in Washington was great, though there were lots of things that happened that were very disturbing. The Missile Crisis was a time when we got closest to another war. I wrote to my mother in law: ‘It’s amazing how one gets used to crises, I found myself last week unable to concentrate on any plans for the future, even as near as a few days away, and I lost several pounds in weight, it was very unpleasant here.”

As world politics were recorded in the history books, so the Sutherlands’ family history sits in their own book of letters. It concludes with a letter to The Times from Lord Brimelow about Sir Iain’s death a year after he retired in 1986. “If it hadn’t been for him, none of it would have happened,” says Sutherland “Sometimes it was sad to do the book. But, in some ways, it was good to remember things and the time we had together.”

o From Moscow To Cuba And Beyond by Jeanne Sutherland is published by IB Tauris priced �27.50.