Temple Tales #1: The Cold Case of the Russian Doll

Russian Dolls.jpg

By Jeffrey Mansfield

In a cabinet in the library at Cardiff’s Temple of Peace sits a ‘matryoshka’, a Russian nesting doll. Around the base a band of embossed tape bears the inscription:

“Presented by Russian Youth Delegation to IVS/UNA International Service Workcamp Butetown 1966”

The IVS (International Voluntary Service) began life as the British branch of Service Civil International. The UNA (United Nations Association) in Wales is today UNA-Exchange, based at the Temple of Peace. ‘Workcamps’ are two to four-week, community-based volunteering projects for international volunteers.Doll base

The doll had been cracked and repaired at some time. The factory label under the base showed it had been made in 1966 in the city of Semyonov, Russia, a major centre for traditional handicrafts.

As a new volunteer at Wales for Peace my job was to discover the hidd

en history of our ‘matryoshka’: how had she got here, and what was the workcamp referred to in the inscription?

The only other information we had was a photograph from Robert Davies‘ book All Together, showing a group of volunteers at the 1966 workcamp mentioned on the doll. Robert is a distinguished pioneer of international volunteering and founder of VCS Cymru, today the oldest volunteer bureau in the UK.

Searches through the Temple’s own archive and the South Wales Echo of 1966 drew a blank. Our doll’s hidden history was indeed well-hidden! Undaunted, we pressed on and we were able to locate an audio recording of an interview between Robert Davies and the volunteers recruited for the camp.

There were several VCS/UNA/IVS international workcamps in Cardiff during the 1960s. In 1964 a project was based at the former Rainbow Club, a children’s club in Butetown, Cardiff’s docklands. The following year, another camp helped to create a playscheme for children in the Splottlands area of Cardiff. There were four workcamps in Cardiff alone in the summer of 1966.

At the time of the visit by the Russian Youth Delegation in August 1966, a workcamp was in progress at Butetown Community Centre, in co-operation with Family Service, another UNA-IVS project in Butetown. There were 6 volunteers, from Israel, Germany, France and Czechoslovakia, brought over by IVS and UNA-International Service (now UNA-Exchange). Two volunteers were assigned to each of three families, selected by the Family Welfare Association (now Family Action). Each family had at least 6 children and the mothers were alone in caring for them. The purpose of the camp was not to build anything but to help the mothers to cope. This was the workcamp referred to on the doll!

Thanks to Robert’s excellent record-keeping we learnt that the doll was presented to him, representing UNA/VCS/IVS, on 21st August 1966 at Butetown Community Centre, by a group of 30 Russian Youth Leaders on a visit organized by Eifion Hopwood, of what is now WCVA.

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There was a strong tradition of volunteering in Soviet Russia. Members of the Komsomol, a youth organization controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, often provided free labour or volunteer work, such as helping collective farmers with the harvest.

It was interesting to note in the VCS Chronicle audio recording that there were volunteers from Czechoslovakia at the 1966 Family Service project. At the time, that country was a member of the Soviet Union.

What makes the Russian visit to Cardiff so significant is that this was a time of great tension in international relations. The Cold War had turned into a hot war in Vietnam, with the Russians supporting the Communist North Vietnam and the UK government lending support to the Americans. Opinion in the UK over Vietnam was deeply divided: Prime Minister Harold Wilson had to face a vote in Parliament in 1966 demanding that he stop supporting the USA.

The symbolic value of our ‘matryoshka’ was now plain to see. Against a backdrop of war, intolerance and tension, the work of building international cooperation and understanding had never ceased. Indeed, two young people from the other side of the Iron Curtain had come to Cardiff to volunteer.

Their work, indeed the work of UNA, had been recognised by a visit from a youth delegation also from the other side of the political divide. Thanks to the efforts of UNA and the other stakeholders, the Temple’s message of peace and goodwill had been heard loud and clear and had contibuted to international understanding at such a troubled time.

That will surely be the lasting legacy of our beautiful ‘matryoshka’.

Find out more on People’s Collection Wales:

You can find our ‘matryoshka’ here: https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/602309

And a record of ‘All Together – a personal experience of International Voluntary Workcamps’ by Robert Davies here: https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/601820

 

One thought on “Temple Tales #1: The Cold Case of the Russian Doll

  1. Thank you, Jeffrey! This is a wonderful story and just the kind of hidden history we want to share through the Wales for Peace project.

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