The businessman and the spy: A Russian love story

Nora and John Murray with their sons in Regent's Park, 1950

Nora and John Murray with their sons in Regent's Park, 1950 - Credit: Archant

The couple’s sons Leeroy and Peter have reissued their memoirs into a new title, Nora & John

Nora and John Murray

Nora and John Murray - Credit: Archant

Leeroy Murray’s parents met in Moscow during World War II in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Under the codename Swallow, Russian-born Nora was sent by the Soviet Secret police to seduce and spy on John at British Embassy gatherings.

But instead the pair fell in love, and through luck and determination made it to London in 1943.

While raising three sons, Nora wrote the 1950 bestseller I Spied for Stalin about becoming a Soviet war bride.

Vivian Leigh and Nora Murray

Vivian Leigh and Nora Murray - Credit: Archant

Decades later, John penned his own account of their Russian love story: A Spy Called Swallow.

Highgate-based Leeroy and brother Peter have now reissued both books with extra background material under the title Nora&John (available at Owl Bookshop and Daunt Books).

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“Many of us know our parents as parents but don’t really know them as people,” says Leeroy. “As I have got older I have wanted to know more and understand who they were. It’s lovely to have their books, but they finished in 1943. I wanted to research more.”

Born on a train amid post-Revolutionary upheaval, Nora grew up amid privilege, her father Vasili was an NKVD official in the Foreign Office policing Soviet allegiance, until his boss was supplanted by Molotov and he was purged.

Nora and John Murray with their children

Nora and John Murray with their children - Credit: Archant

His second wife and daughter were sent to Siberia, while 20-year-old Nora was blackmailed into becoming a spy.

“They asked her to got to the Hotel Metropole and flirt with the diplomats. They threatened to kill her father even though he was already dead.”

John Murray was a well-connected businessman in the Baltic who had brokered arms deals for the Latvians, when the Russians tried to recruit him. He refused, moving to Moscow to work in Sir Stafford Cripps’ British Embassy.

“My mother was given his profile and told ‘this is your target get the information by whatever means’. Amazingly something clicked, she confessed to my father that she was scared for her life and her family, so they played along feeding false information.”

Nora moved into the British compound as John’s housekeeper but when Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the embassy evacuated him north to Archangel.

“He phoned to say goodbye and promised to come back for her.” But the determined Nora obtained false travel documents from a friend at the American embassy and made her way by train and on foot to Archangel’s port gates.

Told his ship had already sailed, she continued through a blizzard to find the delayed crew playing football by floodlight.

“My dad was leaning over the balcony and saw this figure. He couldn’t believe she’d made that journey and he made his commitment to never leave her.”

Needing permission to marry a foreigner and leave the country, Nora’s personal plea to Stalin was granted and they married.

“Stalin was ruthless but Britain had just become an ally so for once the forces of history worked in their favour.”

They travelled on a convoy where most other boats were sunk, arriving in London under siege from German bombs.

“Her problems didn’t stop leaving Rusia. My father immediately enlisted, leaving my mother pregnant and alone. She had to learn English and had a baby in the middle of the Blitz. Living on the third floor she couldn’t make it down to the shelters with the baby.”

From 1946 they lived in a prefab on Savernake Road entertaining Russian émigrés and “people from all over the world.”

“They arrived with nothing and had to start from square one, I am in awe of how they coped emotionally,” says Leeroy.

“But the trauma of these experiences takes its toll. You can’t go through what they went through and it not affect you.”

While John wanted a quiet, unmaterialistic life, the gregarious University-educated Nora “blossomed”.

“She loved being in England, she loved London, the galleries and social life, she was in her element. It was the opposite for my father who was struggling to provide for the family.

“She wrote her book in the middle of the Cold War and it was a sensation. She wanted to condemn the oppressive Soviet system and let the British know Russians are not like that, the Russia she knew and loved was not like that,”

Nora left John in 1955. He raised three sons aged 11, 10 and 9 while working as a clerk at London Zoo. A colourful figure, she lived in Goldington Crescent where she was known as ‘the Russian queen of St Pancras”.

John, who lived until 92, published his autobiography in 1978, and having not seen Nora for 30 years, they were reunited just before her death in 1989. He was at her side to the very last.