When Debbie Gayle told her son Jake her remarkable story – kept secret for nearly five decades – he was determined to track down her mysterious ‘guardian angel’. But would finding Natasha bring peace or reopen painful wounds from the past?
For as long as Jake Warren can remember, his mother has kept a framed photograph of a beautiful woman on her bedside table.
‘I knew her name was Natasha and that it was a very special photo,’ says Jake, 30. ‘I also knew that my mum had been a ballet dancer, that maybe she had been to Russia and that this woman had somehow helped her. If I’d been born a girl, I was going to be called Natasha. But I never sat down to ask, “Who is this woman and what really happened?”’
It was strange that years passed and the story of Natasha was never discussed, given how close Jake is to his mum. His parents separated when he was a baby so it was just the two of them in their South London home. It’s also surprising as, in every other aspect of her life, his mother Debbie Gayle is forthright and funny (his friends describe her as the brunette version of Alison Steadman’s character Pamela, from Gavin and Stacey).
‘My mum has always been an open book,’ says Jake. ‘The thought that she was hiding something seemed so alien to who she was.’
In 2016, Debbie was diagnosed with womb cancer. Her treatment was successful but the experience made her reflect on her life. ‘You have this period when you wait to find if the cancer has spread and I did a lot of thinking,’ says Debbie, now 64. ‘I realised I had unfinished business.’ So one day, as they sat in the living room, Debbie found herself telling her son the whole story.
Her incredible tale is now set out by Jake in a gripping and emotional podcast series called Finding Natasha, due for release on 18 May. It begins in the 1970s, when Debbie was a teenager and a driven and talented ballet student.
‘I had quite a bizarre, solitary childhood,’ says Debbie, who grew up in Beckenham, on the border of London and Kent. Her father was a Hungarian Jew who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust – never speaking of it, instead throwing himself into his work and often travelling abroad for long periods.
Debbie’s parents’ marriage was not a happy one. Her brother was sent to boarding school. ‘I think I took refuge in my dreams, and that dream was to become a great ballerina,’ says Debbie. ‘I had a gift, but I was also particularly determined, probably obsessed.
‘I’d seen Russian dancers and they were the best in the world. I remember thinking that if I could get to the Kirov Ballet company [now the Mariinsky Ballet], which was the greatest ballet school, it would be the making of me.’
This being the height of the Cold War, the relationship between the UK and the then Soviet Union – a repressive Communist regime which sought to exercise total control over its citizens – was extremely hostile.
However, it also had a long history of developing and promoting ballet – there was even a period when orphans were raised to become ballerinas. The Kirov Ballet company was based in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and had produced dance stars such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
In 1974, when Debbie was 17, the British Council announced a scholarship for one British ballet student to study there for a year. It was the first scholarship of its kind, an experiment to see if this cultural exchange could promote understanding and ease tension between the two nations. Debbie had been training for six hours a day under legendary teacher Anna Northcote when she won the scholarship and jumped at the chance.
‘At that age, when you are completely consumed by a dream, you think you can cope with anything,’ says Debbie. ‘My mother, who loved ballet, thought it was a good idea. But my father had lived through a brutal period and knew what the Soviet regime was like. He told me I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I clearly remember it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. With the arrogance of youth, I told him, “Daddy, don’t worry, it’s my dream come true.’’’
Debbie flew to Russia in September 1974. She was met at the airport by a British Council rep who took her to the Kirov, then left. This was the last contact she had with the West. ‘And that’s when the mist started to clear from my eyes,’ says Debbie. ‘From then on, it was a series of shocks.’
There was no ‘warm welcome’; in fact, no welcome at all. Debbie shared a dorm in the Kirov with five other girls, none of whom spoke to her. ‘There was a deep fear and suspicion of Westerners and everyone was warned not to interact with me.’
Debbie’s bed had no mattress, just a wire base. The toilets stood in a line with no walls or screens between them. And the ballet classes were far harder than she could have imagined, ‘The dancers were in a different league to me,’ she remembers. Though Debbie had taken some Russian lessons before flying out, she’d learnt very little. It took her more than 24 hours to even locate the canteen and when she did, she found the food terrible. ‘Most people bought apples or bread on the black market. I was completely dependent on the canteen and I can only describe it as “slop” – a sort of gravy with the odd lump,’ says Debbie.
‘The Soviet Union was grey and grim,’ she continues. ‘The shops had nothing. There were endless queues for bread. I remember seeing two men fight in the snow over some oranges. By the third day I was hungry and scared – that’s when I found Natasha.’
Natasha was a 19-year-old secretary at the Kirov. ‘I was sitting on the stairs crying because I couldn’t find my class,’ says Debbie. ‘Natasha came out of her office, sat down, put her arm around me and said, “You’re the little English girl. Don’t cry!” She was like an angel.’
Although Natasha stressed the need to be discreet, the two developed a friendship – the only one Debbie had. Debbie remembers sticking to Natasha like a ‘giant leech’. They’d drink Turkish coffee in the school basement and take walks around the city to see sights like the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace.
By January, though, already weak and malnourished, Debbie became dangerously sick, probably from drinking contaminated water. For several days, she was unable to get out of bed. One night, two men entered the dorm and escorted her to an ambulance. Debbie was taken to a hospital – she has no idea where – and put into isolation. The room had a viewing window for doctors and was locked from the outside.
‘They didn’t feed me, they just gave me water,’ says Debbie. ‘I’d lost huge amounts of weight and lots of hair. I remember drifting in and out of sleep – I don’t know how many days passed. When nurses came in, I’d cry and ask if anyone knew I was there. They didn’t speak English – they just smiled, then left.’
Why would the ballet school let this happen to a dancer who had supposedly been invited to join them on a scholarship? Debbie believes that the school didn’t want a Western student. ‘They hadn’t asked for me,’ she remembers. ‘It was an instruction from some bureaucrat in Moscow who’d agreed it with the British consulate – and the school wouldn’t have had the power to say “no”.
‘There had been some high-profile defections to the West from the Kirov, including the huge dance star Mikhail Baryshnikov who had defected to Canada just a few months before I arrived. Anyone from the West was viewed with wariness. I wasn’t wanted. When they sent me off to hospital, they had “done the right thing” and could now forget about me. The hospitals then were very primitive. They didn’t know what I had so they prescribed isolation, no food, just water and powerful drugs to knock me out.’
Debbie believes she was being left to die until one day Natasha’s face appeared at the window. ‘It was probably the best moment of my life,’ says Debbie. ‘She put her fingers to her lips, unlocked the door and I fell into her arms crying. She had a coat for me and an apple and she asked if I could walk.’
Leaning heavily on Natasha, Debbie stumbled out of the hospital through a fire exit. They boarded a crowded bus back to Leningrad where Natasha took Debbie to her home, a flat she shared with her parents, and put her into her bed. For the first time, Debbie felt safe. Natasha’s mother fed her soup as Natasha travelled to the British Council to tell them what had happened to the ‘English girl’. They hastily passed on Debbie’s passport and a plane ticket home. Debbie’s final few days in Russia were spent in Natasha’s home.
Natasha showed Debbie the English magazines she had hidden under her bed. ‘She was always fascinated by the West, always a bit of a dissident,’ says Debbie. Natasha also showed Debbie her family photographs – and Debbie asked to keep one picture of Natasha to take home.
It was Natasha who took Debbie by taxi to the airport – Debbie remembers a rushed goodbye and a promise never to forget her. When she arrived in Heathrow, her mother burst into tears at the sight of her and as she recovered in Guy’s Hospital she found that she had hepatitis. Complaints were made to the British Council, but Debbie doesn’t know what came of it, saying, ‘It was a different time, when things were easily brushed under the carpet.’
Once back home, Debbie shut down. ‘I thought, “I never want to talk to anybody about what happened because no one would believe it.” My overwhelming sense was one of failure. I knew I was never going to be the dancer I’d thought I could be. It took a long time to get well again and it was fairly evident I was broken. I did dance professionally – in Germany, then the Northern Ballet Theatre – because I didn’t know what else to do, but my heart wasn’t in it.
‘When I was 21, I met Jake’s dad, a handsome young Army officer, and thought, “I’ll marry you, have a nice life and forget the horror.”’ But Debbie never forgot Natasha – and was haunted by the fear that she suffered terrible repercussions for what she did. ‘I was so terrified that she had been punished,’ says Debbie, ‘and I knew that trying to get in touch with her put her more at risk. I didn’t talk about her, but I used to pray that she was well and had a happy life.’
In 2016, when Debbie finally told this story to her son, he knew he had to find Natasha. As an investigative journalist who had worked for the BBC, and now had his own podcast company, he was in a good position to do so. ‘I remember thinking, “If I can find some answers, I know how happy it would make my mum,”’ says Jake. ‘But I had to keep it secret. I didn’t want to get her hopes up and I didn’t want to scare her either. This was a big thing for her.’
The Finding Natasha podcast Jake has made documents his search, and he is helped by a brilliant Russian journalist, Olga. There are a few false leads, names and places misspelt – but Natasha is found. Now an eminent ballet expert, a professor and lecturer, well respected in her field, who still lives in the same flat she’d brought Debbie to. She has an adult daughter who looks exactly like the younger Natasha in that old photo, as well as a granddaughter. The moment Jake rings his mum to tell her he has found Natasha is caught on the podcast. ‘I don’t remember what I said but I imagine I sounded like a gibbering idiot,’ says Debbie.
Very soon, Debbie and Natasha connected on Zoom. ‘I was so nervous,’ says Debbie, ‘and guess what I did? I did what I always do and cried. Natasha laughed and said, “You’re still crying!” It was a magical call. We’ve had more since then, and lots of emails. Each one of them is precious. We talk about meeting up all the time – one day we will.’
‘Natasha didn’t suffer any terrible repercussions for helping my mum, or none that I can gauge,’ says Jake. ‘It sounds a cliché, but she’s this stoic Russian. My mum describes her as her guardian angel who saved her life, but Natasha doesn’t see it that way. In her mind, she did what anyone else would do if they saw someone else in trouble. She’s one of those true heroes who rejects the moniker of “hero”. For her, she’s just incredibly happy to be reunited with my mum after such a long time of worrying and wondering what happened to her.’
For Debbie, the reunion has been an emotional rollercoaster. ‘It’s an immense gift that Jake has given me,’ she says. ‘He has grown into this incredible young man who I’m so proud of.
‘He has given me the chance to thank Natasha and let her know how important she was to me, and still is. I know that when my time comes to leave this earth, I’ve done the only thing that mattered. The circle is complete.’
The Finding Natasha podcast will be available from 18 May. For more details, go to messageheard.com.