Margaret Wettlin, 96; wrote of her life in Russia

Posted: September 16, 2003

Margaret Butterworth Wettlin, 96, who as a young idealist in 1932 set out for a yearlong adventure in Russia and wound up staying for most of her life, died Sept. 1 at her West Philadelphia home. When she returned to America in 1980, Mrs. Wettlin wrote her memoirs, Fifty Russian Winters, and had a Rip Van Winkle-like experience of finding an America different from the one she had left.

In the Depression spring of 1932, Mrs. Wettlin, who earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928, had been teaching at Media High School for four years. Banks were crashing, people were standing in bread lines, and talk of revolution filled the air. The placid life of a schoolteacher was not enough for the sharp, rambunctious 25-year-old, who was born in Newark and raised in West Philadelphia. She decided to go to Russia.

"I was going to see what living under socialism was like," Mrs. Wettlin said in a 1985 Inquirer interview.

In Moscow, Wettlin found a job teaching the children of American automobile-plant workers. Months after her arrival, she met Andrei Efremoff, a young theater director and protege of the great entertainer Konstantin Stanislavsky. Mrs. Wettlin became absorbed in the Moscow theater world.

"In those days, the Soviet Union was way out in the theater, music and the arts. Those that didn't like it left. Those that stayed were really for the revolution. It was a vibrant, exciting time," she said in another Inquirer interview in 1986.

Mrs. Wettlin married Efremoff in 1934, and the couple headed for Mongolia, where they spent a year helping the locals build a revolutionary national theater.

Mrs. Wettlin (she kept her maiden name) planned to return periodically to the United States, but in 1936, Stalin decreed that foreigners living in the Soviet Union had to leave the country or become Soviet citizens. She decided that she could not abandon her husband and their young son, Andrei, in Moscow.

"Stalin was getting ready for the purges," she said. "I was married. I loved my husband very much. I had a son, who at that time was about a year old. With great pain, I took out Soviet citizenship."

Until the war broke out on June 22, 1941, Mrs. Wettlin's life, like the lives of those around her, was dominated by Stalin's hunt for his enemies.

Mrs. Wettlin and her family escaped the purges, but Moscow was under siege, and the family fled south, to Caucasus.

When the family returned to Moscow, the couple resumed their literary and artistic passions: He began teaching at the Moscow Theater Institute, and she resumed writing. She wrote an account of her war experiences, Russian Road, and began translating Russian classical literature.

After her husband's death in 1968, Mrs. Wettlin decided to return to this country. The State Department determined that she had become a Soviet citizen "under duress" and granted U.S. citizenship to her and her family.

In 1980, accompanied by her daughter and a grandson, Mrs. Wettlin arrived in West Philadelphia. It would be seven years before her son and his family were allowed to leave Russia.

In West Philadelphia, Mrs. Wettlin was impressed by "the immeasurable improved race relations" and MAC machines. "Insert a plastic card, punch a button, and out comes your money. I think it is fantastic," she said in 1986.

Mrs. Wettlin wrote her memoirs, Fifty Russian Winters, and translated Russian literature and plays since 1980.

"I've had a rich and wonderful life, a life full of dire experiences," she said in 1986. "I've learned to appreciate America and I've learned to understand real values and their meaning."

In addition to her son, Mrs. Wettlin is survived by her daughter, Daria Efremoff; four grandchildren; one great-grandson; and a brother.

A memorial service was held Sept. 7 at her home. Burial was private.

Memorial donations may be sent to WHYY-TV (Channel 12), 150 N. Sixth St., Philadelphia 19106.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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