Finding Natasha is an epic family story of ballet dreams and a search for a lost friend, played out against the backdrop of Soviet Russia.
Every family has myths – the stories from older family members that are half-remembered, or half-told. Like many families, my own family stories range from the sublime (my Polish grandmother walking across continents as a refugee) to the ridiculous (Billy Bragg hitting on my mum at a gig). Arguably, every family’s myths are worthy of a podcast. But when you throw in Soviet Russia, the world-renowned Mariinsky Ballet school and a daring escape from a locked hospital, you have the makings of great investigative podcast.
This is the starting point of Finding Natasha, the newest podcast from Message Heard. The company has made other shows investigating geopolitics through personal stories – such as Conflicted, where Aimen Dean (a former jihadist turned British double agent inside Al Qaeda) talks openly about ‘The War on Terror’. But Finding Natasha is more than an investigative podcast – it is research into the producer’s family history.
The podcast focuses on Debbie Gayle, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and one of Britain’s most promising young ballerinas in the 1970s. She is also lead producer Jake’s mum. In 1974, Debbie became the first Westerner to train with the world renowned Kirov (now the Mariinsky) in Russia. The first two episodes of this podcast looks at how this was both a dream come true for Debbie, and a great chance at cultural diplomacy for Britain and Russian.
But Debbie’s time is Russia was disastrous from the start. And after drinking contaminated water, Debbie was taken to an isolated room in a Soviet hospital, and left alone without treatment, and unable to escape. Natasha was the person who let Debbie out and helped her get back to England, and since then, Debbie has searched for Natasha. But she had little more than an Anglicised first name (the Russian would be Natalya) and a photo to go on.
I expected this search for Natasha to be the point of entry for highlighting aspects of a country and time in modern history that can seem impenetrable. And there were points that touched on this – the section that talked about Debbie preparing for the exchange sees a contrast between excitement, and foreboding warnings of the line to tread whilst over there. This was a time when there were dire consequences for simply owning Western currency whilst in Russia.
But rather than using Debbie’s personal story as the listener’s way into 1970s Russia, it plays out the other way around. Russia works as the backdrop to Debbie’s story, and the show doesn’t gloss over how close it is to the subject. Small things remind us that this is a real life family saga. Jake refers to Debbie as ‘Mum’ throughout (rather than using a more formal ‘my mother’) and Zoom recordings don’t edit out the despairing comments from Debbie about the state of her – and Jake’s – hair. It all adds to the realness of Debbie. And it makes the search for Natasha all the more important for both the show and the listener. This family myth is so grand, we feel like we need it to be corroborated. As Jake says at one point:
“As most of us with our parents, I only understood as much as [mum] had given away herself. Natasha was the only other person who was there.”
At five episodes long, Finding Natasha is about the right length. But it did leave me wanting to know more. I wanted to learn about Debbie, and I found myself Googling for images of her. I wanted to read the newspaper cuttings on the cover of the pod art (it would be great to have such resources released alongside the shownotes).
But more than that, Finding Natasha left me wanting to go away and learn more about my own family myths as well.