Course outing to watch Battleship Potemkin - sponsored by the local Communist Party! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Course outing to watch Battleship Potemkin - sponsored by the local Communist Party!

Towards the end of our Russian course someone noticed in the local newspaper that the famous 1925 Eisenstein film 'Battleship Potemkin' (Броненосец Потёмкин), was being shown a few evenings later in a nearby town. The film tells the story of the real-life events of 1905 when the crew of the eponymous battleship rebelled against their officers during the doomed Tsarist regime. A note on the announcement reminded potential customers that it was a silent film. Nevertheless we students unanimously decided that we ought to go and see it. We mentioned this to the school staff. They were completely taken aback and said they would have to refer the matter to the security people.

It seems there was some anguished discussion about whether, for security reasons, we should be allowed to go or not. The school staff thought we should go: the security people thought we should not. In the end we were given permission to go but told to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible and leave as soon as the film was over without getting involved in conversation with anyone. We went in several cars, parked in a council-run car park, and made our way to a hall in a splendid council-run hospitality suite where the film was to be shown. We had dressed in sober suits and ties; that was the normal walking out dress for commissioned officers in the 1970s but, in the circumstances, hardly inconspicuous.

There was very little activity as we arrived but we bought our tickets and moved inside. Then the awful truth dawned on us: the film show was being sponsored by the local Communist Party. Party apparatchiks were everywhere; they were definitely not dressed in three-piece suits or ties and they gave us some very strange looks. We decided not to inspect the reams of Communist literature laid out for sale on a long table. There were only about a dozen other people there to watch the film, in fact the Party officials easily outnumbered the public. We students sat together in an otherwise empty row in the auditorium and not a soul spoke to us or came anywhere near us. We certainly beat a hasty retreat as soon as the film was over.

The film for the most part made compelling viewing, irrespective of the storyline. Some of the filming techniques were quite remarkable for its era and the famous, very long sequence called 'The Odessa Staircase', especially the part where the baby's pram falls interminably down the steps towards the Black Sea, was horrifying.

From time to time we were shown a variety of Russian films as part of our Russian course; some were normal cinema films, others were propaganda films about the Soviet Air Force. Many of the propaganda films had an English sound track dubbed over the original Russian and that entirely negated the only purpose we had for watching them. After one such film show I complained, in the Officers' Mess bar, that the extremely stilted English soundtrack dubbed onto the films of Soviet pilots' radio chat was totally unbelievable.

"It would be much more useful," I opined innocently, "if someone recorded some real-life Soviet Air Force pilots talking on their radios. It must be easy enough to get recordings like that. Apart from making the films more interesting, it could be quite useful for intelligence purposes. We certainly used to listen to Soviet pilots when I flew on Victor tankers." Had I known what was going to happen in the latter weeks of the course, I would not have made that remark - but that was the fault of the system, not me.

We had not been on the Russian Course for long when we realised that there was another, mysterious, part of North Luffenham that we were not supposed to know about or talk about. It was called B Block. All the instructors there were RAF and British. We also knew that those of us earmarked for posting to 26 Signals Unit, but only those, would spend several weeks in there. As soon as we entered B Bock for the first time, each of us had to go through a procedure known as Indoctrination, which meant that we understood that we were going to be given access to highly sensitive signals intelligence that required a higher clearance than that given by the standard positive vetting procedures. I had to declare that I was a UK citizen and had no Irish connections. I didn't find out until I became interested in my family ancestry in the early 2000s that I had lots of Irish relations going back to at least 1760, many still alive and living in the Republic of Ireland - but the vetting authorities didn't discover that either!!

After the indoctrination procedures in B Block, I soon had confirmation that there were plenty of real-life recordings of Soviet pilots talking on air-to-ground radios. That was 1977. In the 21st Century, and especially following the Snowden revelations of 2013, everyone accepts that hardly any electronic (ie digital) conversations are secure and although some might think it impolite, it is no longer un-British to listen to them. It wasn't always like that!

In spite of my travails in the middle part of the course, I left North Luffenham with a GCE Certificate in Russian and an RAF Russian Linguist qualification.

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