Manya Kullmann - Castro’s Keepsakes

Manya Kullmann - Castro’s Keepsakes

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NARRATOR: What tricks do spies keep up their sleeves? What are the gadgets that help them master their craft? I’m Alice Loxton and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. As a talented young print designer, Manya Kullmann draws her inspiration from sources both near and far, strange and familiar, well-known and entirely secret. All of those words can be used to describe one of her collections dedicated to Manya’s grandmother. Manya is clearly not the first creative type to take inspiration from a grandmother. The influence of the world’s nonnas, nannas, and abuelas is writ large upon everything from food to fashion. But there is one detail that sets hers apart from all the others. And that’s the fact that Manya’s grandmother happened to be a KGB spy.

MANYA KULLMANN: My grandmother, her name was Galia, she’s not actually from Moscow, she’s from a tiny little village in Russia and moved to Moscow when she was about 18 years old. She was one of the women who knew how to speak English and Spanish so she was sent as a cultural attaché from the USSR embassy to Cuba and worked as an interpreter.

NARRATOR: Cuba’s revolution began in 1953 and ended six years later, with a new communist-leaning leader at the helm: One Fidel Castro. Relations between Moscow and Havana, which had been weak, quickly became a priority for both nations. And so Galia found herself in the middle of a budding love affair between her vast country and the tiny Caribbean island. Dispatched, ostensibly, as a cultural attaché - but with the implicit understanding that she was to keep a close eye on this new, unproven ally.

MANYA KULLMANN: She went to Cuba first in 1957. She was very hard-working, never complained, and really embraced the Cuban lifestyle. She was a great believer in communist ideology and she was very patriotic. 

NARRATOR: As a fully paid-up disciple to the cause, Galia quickly found herself in the epicenter of the communist mission. 

MANYA KULLMANN: Fidel Castro chose her personally to work for him, his own personal interpreter. Fidel really took a liking to her because she was Russian, blonde hair, bombshell basically. She didn’t mind Fidel’s excessive smoking of cigars. She didn’t drink at all, a complete teetotaller. She kept on returning to Cuba. It was constantly ongoing for six years, back and forth from Russia to Cuba. 

NARRATOR: So now the beautiful young Galia finds herself translating conversations between Soviet visitors and the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. And as the relationship between the two sides blossoms, so too does the bond between Fidel and his translator.

MANYA KULLMANN: He would spoil her with little gifts.

NARRATOR: Which brings us to the items that sit before Manya right now, ready for their introduction to our own little collection.

MANYA KULLMANN: The objects I have chosen are a piece of jewelry that Fidel Castro gave to my grandmother and a photograph of them together. It’s a shell necklace made with, I think it’s out of glass. She also has this conch shell which he found in the sea while diving and he actually inscribed in the shell their initials.

NARRATOR: Suffice to say Fidel was smitten with the visiting Russian bombshell. But what about Galia? How did she feel in the spotlight of the great leader’s attention?

MANYA KULLMANN: She was in love with him completely, so one of her loves. In the photograph it’s really quite evident - the way she’s looking at him with these loving eyes, completely in love.

NARRATOR: That intensity of feeling, it endured over the years. Right up to Fidel Castro’s death, at age 90.

MANYA KULLMANN: When he passed away in 2016, I remember we came to Moscow. She was in complete black. She had this little badge with the Cuban flag. She was in tears, complete tears. She asked my mom to send Fidel’s brother a telegram saying that there will never be anybody like Fidel Castro and the world will be the same -  these are her words - the world will never be the same without el comandante

NARRATOR: And what became of Galia? Sadly, Manya’s formidable grandmother passed not long ago. She remained a secretive woman well into her 90s, refusing to offer anything more than tantalizing clues about her exotic past as a spy.

MANYA KULLMANN: I think it’s because in the Soviet Union if you were a spy you had to be very quiet about it otherwise you’d potentially get killed. Once you’re in it, you can’t really escape it.

NARRATOR: What can I say? Once a spy, always a spy. But Manya’s curiosity about her babushka’s hidden life still seizes her imagination.

MANYA KULLMANN: I can’t imagine what she had to go through to live this sort of lifestyle but that’s what inspired the collection and I basically created my own spy world.

NARRATOR: Back in 2019, Manya was finishing her degree in fashion at Central St Martins in London, and she came up with the idea of basing a collection around her grandmother’s story.

MANYA KULLMANN: It’s a lot of different inspirations, basically, on the collection. But it turned out to be a really fun one and I really tried to make that contrast from the dull, gray city of Moscow to this incredible life that she built for herself. And it was exciting. She got to meet so many incredible people. 

NARRATOR: The details of that life may remain murky, but they have been vividly imagined in the wonderful collection by Manya Kullmann. I implore you to search it out online. I'm Alice Loxton. Be sure to explore the other enigmatic items in our archive, and join me back here, next week, for more.

Guest Bio

Manya Kullman is

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