In Our Latin Quarter

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T&V Media, Mar 1, 2016 - Biography & Autobiography - 107 pages

 After graduating from the Toulouse Agricultural Institute in 1934, Moscow native Alexei Nikolayevich Kochetkov undertook one year of compulsory military service in the Latvian Army. When he had fulfilled his obligation, he returned to France. Eager to continue his studies, Kochetkov enrolled in the National Agricultural Institute in Paris, focusing on plant pathology. It was his dream to return to Russia one day and use his education to benefit his motherland. 

While dedicated to his studies and his work in the laboratory of celebrated biochemist Gabriel Bertrand, Kochetkov immersed himself in the politics and interests of the Russian émigré community. An ardent political activist, he disseminated a youth-oriented left-wing newspaper, frequented political gatherings, and celebrated Popular Front victories. He even participated in violent confrontations with extreme right-wing groups—activities that resulted in a deportation threat from the Parisian police. 

Kochetkov paints a vividly engaging picture of student life in Paris during the 1930s. It was a heady time to be in Paris, and through his depiction of quotidian scenes amid the Russian émigré milieu, his studies, and his friendships the epoch comes alive. Kochetkov recounts the political meetings and discussions he attended, as well as his admiration for a female classmate and his sometimes humorous clashes with his laboratory mate.


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About the author (2016)

 Educated as an agronomist, Alexei Nikolayevich Kochetkov (02/08/1912 – 01/20/1987) was a journalist and author, an interpreter, and a political activist. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, in the antifascist Berlin underground, and with the French Resistance. After the World War II he worked as a radio journalist and as an interpreter, and wrote the autobiographical novel I Am Coming Back to You.

Born in Moscow, Russia, Kochetkov was eight years old when his father died. Four years later, his mother married a Latvian citizen and the family, including his two siblings, moved to Riga, Latvia. From that point, he dreamed of returning to Moscow. After graduating from the Lomonosov gymnasium in Riga, he went to Toulouse, France, to study agronomy. He received a diploma from the Institut Agronomique in 1934 and returned to Latvia for one year of mandatory military service. While in Riga, he filed a repatriation petition at the Soviet Consulate.

After completing his military service, Kochetkov continued his studies at the Institut National Agronomique in Paris, focusing on plant pathology in order to be useful to his motherland. He conducted research at the laboratory of renowned biochemist Gabriel Bertrand. At this time, he joined the Communist Youth Section of the Latin Quarter and the Youth Circle at the Union for Repatriation. At the Union for Repatriation, he met Sergei Yakovlevich Efron and his daughter Ariadna, Vladimir Konstantinovich Glinoyedski, and many other would-be repatriates. Kochetkov grew particularly close to Boris Ilarionovich Zhuravlev.

In August 1936, Kochetkov, Zhuravlev, and Platon Balkovenko went to Spain to fight with the Republican Army as volunteers. Zhuravlev remained in Barcelona to lead an artillery battery that was being organized, while Kochetkov and Balkovenko were sent to the Aragon front. They spent several months as members of a machine gun crew positioned on a hill near Huesca, not far from the village of Chimillas. Glinoyedski, a former artillery colonel of the tsarist army and the artillery adviser to the general staff of the Aragon front, moved them to an artillery battery of the 27th division. A few months later, at the request of Glinoyedski, Kochetkov reluctantly agreed to become an interpreter for Soviet military advisers. In August 1938, he was promoted to the rank of captain in the Republican Army. Shortly after that Kochetkov was wounded by an exploding air bomb.

In early February 1939, he crossed the French border with the International Brigades and was interned at a camp near Saint-Cyprien. While there, he filed another repatriation petition. From the Saint-Cyprien camp, he was transferred to the Gurs camp and later to the Vernet camp.

After the annexation of Latvia to the USSR in August 1940, Kochetkov automatically became a Soviet citizen. However, the matter of his citizenship was complicated by the fact that he had left his Latvian passport in Paris at the headquarters of the Union of Friends of the Soviet Motherland (formerly the Union for Repatriation) before leaving for Spain. In spring 1941, German recruiters appeared in the Vernet camp. Knowing that there was a Soviet Consulate in Berlin, Kochetkov enlisted to work in Germany.

In March 1941, he arrived in Berlin and began working at the AEG transformer factory. About one-third of workers there were foreigners. He was first assigned to hard manual labor in the galvanizing plant, but later he was transferred to the DS-1 workshop to deliver spare parts. This job allowed him to move between shops without arousing suspicion. He met many workers and established a trusting relationship with Iosif Gnat from Trebnitz, Mario from Italy, Joseph from France, and Friedrich Murawske from Berlin, the stockman of the DS-3 workshop.

Shortly after arriving in Berlin, Kochetkov filed a repatriation petition at the Soviet Consulate, attaching his International Brigade identity card. The consulate staff promised to help, but three months later Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and the Soviet diplomats were evacuated. Through Murawske, Kochetkov became involved with a clandestine organization that distributed leaflets and the underground newspaper Die Innere Front (the Internal Front). His contact, Otto Grabowski, asked him to work with foreigners. As part of his mission, Kochetkov established contacts with Eastern European workers in Berlin camps, helped to create committees and sabotage groups, wrote an appeal in the form of a leaflet printed on a rotary press owned by Max Grabowski, Otto Grabowski’s brother. The leaflet was later distributed in the camps. Herbert Grasse replaced Grabowski in the role of underground contact. Kochetkov wrote an appeal called “There will be the second front!” on a wax cylinder delivered by Grasse, but Grasse’s arrest prevented its printing and distribution.

In August 1943, to avoid imminent arrest, Kochetkov went to Paris under the pretense of going on a ten-day vacation. He hoped that in France he would be able to fight fascism more effectively than was possible in Berlin. He managed to get in touch with his old acquaintance Georgiy Shibanov who helped him go underground. Shibanov gave Kochetkov responsibility for organizing resistance in camps of Soviet prisoners of war and civilians in the departments of Nord and Pas de Calais. Kochetkov traveled from town to town, meeting underground contacts, giving them instructions and leaflets, collecting reports, and initiating contact with camps not yet part of their network. During this time, he made the acquaintance of many wonderful people, including Vasily Porik, an exceptionally courageous man. In early 1944, Kochetkov was tasked with undermining the morale of the so-called General Andrey Vlasov’s men. In February 1944 the Gestapo managed to infiltrate the Union of Russian Patriots, and many of its members were arrested. Miraculously, Kochetkov escaped arrest. In May 1944, in Thil, the Germans arrested Ivan Troyan, who was responsible for organizing resistance in northeastern France. Two months later, tipped off by one of his comrades, the Gestapo arrested Vassili Porik. Neither Troyan nor Porik divulged the names of anyone else.

Several months after the liberation of Paris, Kochetkov was sent to a camp for displaced people. After an interminable wait, the people in the camp were transferred by an American aircraft to Torgau, Germany. In the Soviet occupation zone, they were again placed in a camp. Kochetkov was with Galya, a partisan who had been arrested by the Germans. She volunteered to perform secretarial duties and forged letters of permission from repatriating authorities for Kochetkov and herself, allowing them to return to the country of their origin. They escaped from the camp and for a month traveled on a freight train that carried railway sleepers. When the train stopped at its destination, they continued on foot. One day, while passing near a barbed-wire fence that surrounded a camp, Kochetkov and Galya were stopped by an armed woman on sentry duty. She was about to report them to her superiors, but Galya started crying and said, “Let me and my husband go. My mother is dying at a nearby railroad station, and we need to be with her at her last moments.” The sentry took pity on them and allowed them to walk away. Finally, in July 1945, they arrived by train in Dvinsk. From there, Galya went home to Velikiye Luki, and Kochetkov returned to Riga.

Kochetkov didn’t find any relatives in Riga. His mother had died in 1938; his younger half-sister, Lucia, and his stepfather had been declared enemies of the people and deported to Siberia in 1941. As a relative of people deemed enemies of the people, Kochetkov was forbidden from living in Riga. Kochetkov was not one to be easily discouraged, so he went to the city office of the Party and explained that he had participated in the French Resistance and had fought in Spain. They asked him to name Latvians whom he had known in Spain. He named some, including Žanis Grīva, who was working as correspondent for the newspaper Cīņa at the time. When asked about Kochetkov, Grīva replied, “Of course I know him. Everybody knows Alesha!” Knowing that he had no place to live, Grīva invited him to stay at his apartment. Later Kochetkov was taken in by another brigadist, Rudolf Lācis. Sometime later, Galya joined Kochetkov in Riga; she died of tuberculosis in the spring of 1946.

For five years, Kochetkov worked in the Riga Executive Committee, a job that required Party membership. Initially there was some tolerance, then Deglav, the head of the Executive Committee, told him that he could not protect him any longer and gave him a job on the radio.

At the beginning of 1953, Kochetkov’s wife, Tauba, was fired from her job at the height of an anti-Semitic campaign, and he was asked by his superiors to divorce her since she was Jewish. He refused in the strongest terms, and they fired him. He then found employment as an agronomist and later made a living by translating technical publications from European languages to Russian.

Alexei Nikolayevich Kochetkov was an affable, freedom-loving man of great openness; he was a loyal friend and honest down to the smallest detail. Every day he listened to the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Liberty; he read and distributed typescript copies of banned literature. He had many friends: the alumni of the Lomonosov gymnasium, dissidents and refuseniks, comrades in antifascist struggle, and acquaintances from his time in Berlin and Paris. He managed to find many close and distant relatives with whom he corresponded and visited. In the mid-1970s, he succeeded in getting an exit visa and went to New Zealand, where his sister Zina lived. Thanks to his knowledge of agronomy, he was able to work there as a gardener. He bought a motorcycle and was very proud of it. After his health began to deteriorate, he moved to the United States to live with his daughter Vera. In 1986 he returned to Riga where he married his long-time girlfriend Alexandra Vladimirovna Rodionova.