Paul Nicholas Khlopin, 1903-1973

In the Autumn of 1918 a boy, not yet 15 years of age, plodded along a track between the Russian towns of Konetzgorje and Beresniki, to the west of the range of mountains known as the Urals. With one of the coldest winters on record coming on, the weather was cruel, and young Paul Khlopin was poorly dressed for the conditions, wearing only thin school clothes. To add to the bitterness of his situation, he was alone and fending for himself.

The Russian Revolution had begun just over a year earlier resulting in the monarch Czar Nicholas II abdicating and when the exiled Vladimir Lenin returned to his native land he was intent on far reaching political change. Before long Russia was plunged into a civil war that was not concluded until 1920. Lenin’s Bolshevik forces saw the war as a struggle between the workers and Russia’s upper and middle classes; socialism against international capitalism.

In the upheaval, the priests who ran Paul’s college had been forced to disband the institution. Everyone was turned out and Paul, many hundreds of miles from his family and with just a few roubles in his pocket, was thrown upon his own resources. He felt that his best chance of survival was to enlist with the White Russian forces to fight the Bolsheviks.

Arriving at Beresniki he persuaded a kindly woman to take him into her home where a dozen or so workmen were billeted. They laughed at his desire to join the army – “You are far too small” – but he was introduced to the foreman of a gang digging trenches and was soon put to work. With the ground frozen hard a huge log fire first had to be built along the proposed line of the trench. After a few hours of this the gang then had to dig like devils lest the ground refroze harder than ever. The idea was to build a chain of small fortresses along a river bank, to check the supposed Bolshevik advance in the spring.

Paul’s wits were sharp and the workmen were no match for him. He was able to get hold of cigarettes which he bartered for boots and puttees, and then swapped these for a fur coat. Christmas came and went, and with the digging eventually over he was switched to unloading provisions and ammunition, but soon it was decreed that only local labourers would be used and it was time for him to move on again.

A short way down the river were six ice-bound barges, on which were quartered men and officers of the newly formed British Royal Air Force. Aboard one of these barges Paul spied a thick set man with a bristling red moustache splitting firewood and giving vent to a stream of Anglo-Saxon expletives that even a Russian boy could understand.  Plucking up courage, Paul stepped aboard only to be shouted at: “What do you want? Be off.” Holding his nerve, he indicated that he’d like to help and chop the wood, and with relief the British airman handed him the axe. Before long the job was done and after being rewarded with a bowl of oatmeal he was asked to return the following day. A week later his British friend, Corporal Preston, helped Paul to officially join the Labour Battalion.

The work was hard for he had to rise at 5 am to light the kitchen fire and then chop wood and carry water all day, venturing out across the ice to the middle of the river where the ice had not reached down to the river bed. Evenings were spent learning English and listening to his new colleagues’ talk and songs. But there was fun too: rugby matches (officers v. sergeants), boxing and skiing.

By April 1919 the river began to thaw and the airmen had to quit their barge as the ice broke and the vessel was in danger of sinking. Temporary quarters were obtained at the Y.M.C.A. and eventually, it seems, the British moved out and Paul was encouraged to return with them to England.

In London, Paul kept his connection with the Y.M.C.A. and by 1925, with his tough teenage years standing him in good stead, he had started competing in running races of up to 5 miles, winning and leading his team to victory. By October 1926 he had advanced to stage where he decided to join an out and out athletic club – Belgrave Harriers. Almost immediately he made an impact, placing fourth in an inter-club race where well over 60 competed, finishing close behind Bert Footer. Other club races saw him in the first handful of runners – 5th in a five miler, on Footer’s shoulder again, 6th in the ‘H.T. Blackstaffe Shield’ for the club’s 7 Miles Championship and 4th in the 10 Miles Championship.  The tougher it was, the better he seemed to like it. It’s a pretty good bet that he would have made the London to Brighton Road Relay team in his first year of Belgrave competition but unfortunately the teams were restricted to British runners only.

A further advance was made in his running when in the winter season of 1927-28 Paul maintained his forward placings in club races but additionally led the Belgrave team to bronze medals in the South of Thames “Junior” Cross Country Race, bronze medals again in the South Thames Championship Race, and he made 38th place in the “Southern”.

The rules must have been changed for the London-Brighton Road Relay because this time, as a foreign national, he was allowed to compete, taking charge of the fifth stage. Here he sampled the amazing atmosphere of the road relays. A bus had been hired to take the Belgrave runners to the designated start point for each relay leg. The interior of the bus was transformed into a dressing-room, achieved by the liberal use of claret and gold paper to screen the windows and the erection of a curtain partition inside. Paul experienced some trouble on his stage at Crawley, taking over in 11th and handing over in 13th but he was not alone, for the team’s position between Westminster and the Brighton sea-front fluctuated between 11th and 14th throughout. They found the competition at ‘National’ level formidable and ended up in 12th place.

In 1929 Paul was a prominent member of the team that recorded the Club’s first ever win in the South of Thames Cross Country Championship – a race with a history going back to 1888. Track racing had also been attempted but it would seem that as far as he was concerned, the progress achieved was not good enough. He was criticised for “training too hard” and on one occasion in the Middlesex track championships he had flung himself onto the grass infield in despair at not being able to achieve the forward placings he would like.

Perhaps it was this that caused him to try the noble art of race walking. By the end of the year he had won the Club’s “Opening Walk” Handicap and had begun to make an impact in the “Open Sevens”. In 1930 Paul was third in the Belgrave Twenty Miles Walking Championship, won by future Olympic Champion Tommy Green. Marriage provided a distraction for a while but he was back in 1932, this time attempting the London to Brighton Walk, taking his place as one of the 82 starters at Westminster. At Crawley, the scene of his less than happy début in the Club’s road relay team, the withdrawal of one of the team up ahead meant that Paul became the fourth Belgravian on the road – the club’s last scorer. It was vital that he maintained his position to ensure a chance of winning. He was apprised of the situation and immediately announced his intention of doing all that was expected of him; and so he did! Belgrave took the team race with Paul in 22nd place. He now had the distinction of having been a member of Belgrave's running and walking gold medal winning teams. Paul’s attendant on the road confided that Paul had drunk enough tea to enable him to swim the distance and when he couldn’t have tea had resorted to his national drink of vodka, with water.

The event that Paul shone at had been found and he returned to the Brighton Road in 1933 through to 1935, virtually forsaking all other races. Three times his determination in this toughest of events resulted in him winning a gold team medal. With a background of walking half-starved through a Russian winter as a schoolboy, perhaps the “Brighton” was a “doddle”.

Paul took on a variety of roles in his working life – a clerk in South London, a Russian & English translator, an engineer maintaining agricultural machinery, a store-keeper and then, finally, he became the care-taker at St Alban’s City Library. He became a naturalised Briton in 1931 and died in the summer of 1973, aged 69.  

Above: Paul Khlopin in his early twenties - YMCA champion.

Below: Paul was among 200 competitors taking part in the 20 Miles National Road Walking Association Championship at Derby in 1930.

A refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution who became a valued Belgravian, winning team gold medals at cross country and race walking.

Above: 1930, and Paul Khlopin is on the far left of this gathering of Belgrave race walkers outside St John's Hall (now Belgrave Hall). Second left is R.D. McMullen, fifth left, standing at the back is A.A. Harley and on his left is J.E. Field. Immediately behind the cup is F.H. Elson and the man on his left may be Jimmy Belchamber. Fifth from right, head and shoulders between two others is Charlie Speechley, the tall man behind him to his left and at the back is possibly Charlie Churcher. Second from the right is Jack Bidgood. The young man on the right may be H.S. Latter.

 

The trophy is the R.W.A. "Junior" Cup, won at Enfield on 1st March 1930. It was the Club's third win in this event. They previously won in 1920 and 1922.

Below: A treasured certificate - London to Brighton in 9 hours 36 minutes 7 seconds.

 
 

Left: A club race skirting Wimbledon Common. Paul wears number 16.

 

Below left: at the stroke of 7am race walkers set out across Westminster Bridge, starting the London to Brighton Walk.

References:

England & Wales births, deaths and marriages 1837-2007. London, England: General Register Office for England & Wales (GRO).

1939 Register. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).

Probate Calendars Of England & Wales 1858-1959. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).

Communication with Paul Khlopin's daughter.

The Belgravian, The Official Gazette of the Belgrave Harriers.

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