As we described on Saturday, in the first part of a major new serialisation, KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky was recruited by Britain’s MI6 as a double-ag
As we described on Saturday, in the first part of a major new serialisation, KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky was recruited by Britain’s MI6 as a double-agent while serving in the Soviet embassy in Denmark.
But after two years of passing secrets, he was recalled to Moscow, to a desk job. He called a halt to his spying. It would be too dangerous. Three years went by without a peep from him. And then, out of the blue…
At their first meeting with Michael Foot, in the offices of Tribune (the Left-wing magazine he edited), KGB officers posing as diplomats slipped £10 into his pocket (worth roughly £250 today). He did not object
When the plum job of a posting to the KGB station in London came up in 1981, Oleg Gordievsky eagerly put himself forward.
He had been languishing in a desk job at headquarters in Moscow for three years. Here was a chance to get back into the game.
The London rezidentura was one of the most active in the world, and he would be handling secrets of the first importance.
He put on a show of enthusiasm, obsequiousness and fake humility to the boss whose decision it was — a thoroughly unpleasant character known as The Crocodile. Gordievsky loathed him.
But his toadying worked. He was appointed to the Soviet embassy in London, ostensibly to the diplomatic position of Counsellor but in reality deputy head of the KGB station housed there.
By now, he was divorced from his first wife and had two little girls with his second, Leila, who had been his lover in Copenhagen.
She was overjoyed at the prospect, imagining herself taking her well-dressed, English-speaking daughters to school, well-stocked supermarkets, delicious restaurants and elegant parks.
Thanks to Oleg Gordievsky, Nato toned down some aspects of the exercise, leaving the Soviets in no doubt that it just was a war game. Disaster was averted. Both Thatcher, pictured above with Mikhail Gorbachev, and U.S President Ronald Reagan grasped how jumpy the Russians were
Gordievsky described to Leila the Englishmen he’d met in Copenhagen — witty, sophisticated people, full of laughter and generosity. What he didn’t tell her was about the secret life that awaited him.
He would re-establish contact with MI6 as soon as it was safe to do so. He would spy for Britain, in the UK, and one day, perhaps he would tell MI6 he was finished. Then he could defect, finally reveal his double life to his wife, and they would remain in the West.
Gordievsky filled out his visa application and sent it to the British embassy in Moscow. From there, it was dispatched to London — where James Spooner, the head of MI6’s Soviet section, was ecstatic when it reached his desk. The waiting had paid off. ‘Sunbeam’ — Gordievsky’s codename — had resurfaced.
Not surprisingly, his permit to enter Britain as an accredited diplomat was duly issued. There was, though, a bureaucratic delay in Moscow about his travel papers. It left him worrying whether he was under investigation.
As the weeks stretched out, he spent his time profitably perusing the files in KGB headquarters — one of the most secretive and impenetrable places on earth.
Oleg Gordievsky the KGB Colonel turned British spy, is seen here in disguise, in the Marlborough Hotel in London in 1990
In Room 635, the political section of the British department, were three large metal cupboards containing files on individuals in the UK regarded by the KGB as agents, potential agents or confidential contacts.
Every day he would sign out a file, break the seal, and discover another Briton the KGB was either fishing for or had its hooks into.
These individuals were not spies, properly speaking. They were opinion-formers, politicians, journalists and others in positions of power that the KGB hoped to influence.
Some were considered conscious ‘agents’, knowingly supplying information in a clandestine way; others were classed as ‘confidential contacts’, helpful informants with varying degrees of complicity.
Oleg Gordievsky in his KGB uniform. He was appointed to the Soviet embassy in London
Some accepted hospitality, holidays or money. Others, merely sympathisers to the Soviet cause, were not even aware the KGB was cultivating them. Most would have been astonished to know that they merited a codename and a file in a locked steel cupboard in Moscow.
Some cases stretched back decades. Some names were shocking.
Jack Jones, one of the most respected figures in the British trade union movement, was also a KGB agent. For ten years, as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and its two million members, he had been one of the most powerful people in Britain, with, some said, greater influence than the PM.
A former Communist, Jones was formally listed by the KGB as an agent, who, between 1964 and 1968, handed over ‘confidential Labour Party documents as well as information on his colleagues and contacts and what was happening in 10 Downing Street’.
He accepted contributions towards his ‘holiday expenses’.
Jones had broken with Moscow after the Soviet Union crushed the outbreak of democracy in Czechoslovakia in 1968 but Gordievsky noted ‘clear indications in the file that the KGB wished to revive its association with him’.
A second dossier was devoted to Bob Edwards, a Left-wing Labour MP. He’d been secretly awarded the Order of the People’s Friendship, the third-highest Soviet decoration, in recognition of his undercover work.
In addition to the big fish, the files contained a number of smaller fry, such as the veteran peace activist Fenner Brockway — logged as a ‘confidential contact’ — and Guardian journalist Richard Gott.
Gordievsky recalled: ‘Foot freely disclosed information about the Labour movement. He told them which politicians and trade union leaders were pro-Soviet, even suggesting which union bosses should be given the present of Soviet-funded holidays on the Black Sea
Like all spy agencies, the KGB was prone to wishful thinking and several of those identified were simply Left-wingers, perceived as potentially pro-Soviet.
But there was one dossier that stood out from all the others.
The cardboard box contained two folders, one 300 pages thick, the other perhaps half that size, bound with old string and sealed. The file was labelled ‘Boot’.
On the cover, the word ‘agent’ had been crossed out, and ‘confidential contact’ inserted.
Gordievsky broke the seal and opened the file to discover that ‘Boot’ was the Right Honourable Michael Foot, distinguished writer and orator, veteran Left-wing MP and leader of the Labour Party.
If Labour won the next election, he would become PM. A man who had once been a paid KGB agent. The dossier described, step by step, how a 20-year relationship with Foot had evolved since the late-1940s.
At their first meeting with him, in the offices of Tribune (the Left-wing magazine he edited), KGB officers posing as diplomats slipped £10 into his pocket (worth roughly £250 today). He did not object.
The file listed the payments made to Foot over the years — a dozen or so of between £100 and £150 each, roughly £1,500 in total (the equivalent of £37,000 today).
What happened to the money is unclear but it seems likely the cash was used to prop up Tribune, which was perennially broke, rather than for personal use.
Foot did not conceal his meetings with Soviet officials and since he was a public figure these were impossible to arrange clandestinely. They took place roughly once a month, frequently over lunch at the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho, and were recorded in reports sent to Moscow.
Gordievsky, above, filled out his visa application and sent it to the British embassy in Moscow. From there, it was dispatched to London — where James Spooner, the head of MI6’s Soviet section, was ecstatic when it reached his desk. The waiting had paid off. ‘Sunbeam’ — Gordievsky’s codename — had resurfaced
Gordievsky recalled: ‘Foot freely disclosed information about the Labour movement. He told them which politicians and trade union leaders were pro-Soviet, even suggesting which union bosses should be given the present of Soviet-funded holidays on the Black Sea.
‘A leading supporter of CND, he also passed on what he knew about debates over nuclear weapons. The KGB gave him drafts of articles encouraging British disarmament which he could then edit and publish, unattributed to their real source, in Tribune.’
He was an ‘opinion-creator’, and therefore more an agent of influence than an agent of espionage. Foot would not have known that the KGB classified him as an agent. He leaked no state secrets. He may have been unaware that his interlocutors were KGB officers, feeding him information, and passing whatever he revealed back to Moscow. If so, he was stunningly naïve.
In 1968, Foot, like Jones, was intensely critical of Moscow when Soviet forces crushed the democracy movement in Czechoslovakia. No more money changed hands after that and he was downgraded from ‘agent’ to ‘confidential contact’.
Gordievsky opened a file to discover that ‘Boot’ was the Right Honourable Michael Foot, above, distinguished writer and orator, veteran Left-wing MP and leader of the Labour Party. If Labour won the next election, he would become PM
The meetings became less frequent, and by the time Foot was running for the Labour leadership, had ceased. But, from the KGB view in 1981, the case remained open, and might be revived.
The ‘Boot’ file left Gordievsky in no doubt. Foot had not broken the law. He was not a Soviet spy. He had not betrayed his country. But he had taken direction and secretly accepted money from, while giving information to, an enemy power.
If his relationship with the KGB were discovered by his political rivals, it would destroy his career in a moment, decapitate the Labour Party, and ignite a scandal that would rewrite British politics. At the very least, Foot would be sure to lose the next election.
Covert surveillance photographs of Oleg Gordievsky taken by the Danish intelligence service PET during his postings to Copenhagen
After a four-month wait, Gordievsky was on his way. The Fifth Department of KGB Directorate K finally gave him the all-clear to travel and in June 1982, he boarded the Aeroflot flight to London, with Leila and their daughters, aged two, and nine months.
As the plane took off, his mind was heavy with the accumulated mental baggage from his secret study in the KGB archives. Making notes would have been far too dangerous. Instead, he carried in his head the names of every agent in Britain, and every KGB spy in the Soviet embassy in London.
He was anxious. If his work for MI6 succeeded, he would eventually have to defect, and might never return to Russia and never again see his mother or younger sister.
But if he was exposed, he could return to face interrogation and execution.
After their arrival, Gordievsky and his family quickly settled into their two-bedroom flat in a building entirely occupied by Soviet embassy staff on Kensington High Street.
He was a little disappointed, finding London dirtier than Copenhagen, not much cleaner than Moscow. Still, he reflected, simply getting to the UK was ‘a mighty victory, for British intelligence and for me’.
Foot, seen campaigning above in Plymouth, would not have known that the KGB classified him as an agent. He leaked no state secrets. He may have been unaware that his interlocutors were KGB officers, feeding him information
The next morning, he presented his pass to the doorman at the Soviet embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, and was escorted to the KGB rezidentura, a cramped, smoky, fortified enclave on the top floor.
He had entered a miniature Stalinist state, rigid with mistrust, ruled over by an obsessively suspicious chief, General Arkadi Guk, who was ignorant, brutally ambitious and often drunk on vodka. He hated Britain and the British, ate only Russian food, in vast amounts, and barely spoke any English.
Much of the information he sent back to Moscow was pure invention, cleverly framed to feed Moscow’s rampant conspiracy theories — such as the idea that the centre-Left Social Democratic Party (SDP), the new political grouping formed in March 1981, had been created by the CIA.
Gordievsky summed up his new boss as ‘a huge, bloated lump of a man, with a mediocre brain and a large reserve of low cunning’.
In 1968, Foot, like Jones, was intensely critical of Moscow when Soviet forces crushed the democracy movement in Czechoslovakia. No more money changed hands after that and he was downgraded from ‘agent’ to ‘confidential contact’
The outpost was one of the most profoundly paranoid places on earth, an organisation imbued with a siege mentality largely based on fantasy.
The KGB was convinced that the entire Soviet embassy was the target of a gigantic and sustained eavesdropping campaign. The windows were all bricked up. Secret conversations took place in a metal-lined, windowless room in the basement. Electric typewriters were banned in case they were bugged.
Jack Jones, one of the most respected figures in the British trade union movement, was also a KGB agent. He had been one of the most powerful people in Britain
Guk’s personal obsession was the London Underground, which he never entered since he believed advertising panels in Tube stations contained two-way mirrors. He went everywhere in his Mercedes.
A week after his arrival in London, Gordievsky went to a phone box and, after checking he hadn’t been tailed, rang the MI6 number he’d been given.
Geoffrey Guscott, his principal handler, answered, and a rendezvous was set at the Holiday Inn in Sloane Street, where Russian spies were unlikely to be lurking.
At the appointed hour, Gordievsky entered the hotel and a slight smile crossed the Russian’s face as he spotted Guscott. As agreed, Gordievsky followed him out through the back door and up stairs to the car park.
A car was waiting and they drove to a block of flats in Bayswater. A one-bedroom flat on the third floor had been chosen as their ‘safe house’. It was screened from the street by a line of trees, there was an underground car park with direct access and a gate from the rear garden led into a side street, for an emergency escape route.
The flat was sufficiently far from the Soviet embassy to make it unlikely Gordievsky would be randomly spotted by other KGB officers, but near enough for him to drive there to meet his case officers, and return to Kensington Palace Gardens within two hours.
Over tea, Guscott outlined the operational plan. Gordievsky would meet his MI6 case officers there once a month.
Guscott also handed him a key to a house that would be his bolthole where he could go to ground, with or without his family, the moment he sensed danger.
With these protocols agreed, Gordievsky leaned forward and started to unload four years of accumulated secrets, a great tumbling screed of all that information gathered from the files in Moscow and committed to memory: names, dates, places, plans, agents and illegals.
Liberal leader David Steele, Foot, centre, and Thatcher, right, hold their wreaths at the cenotaph for a Remembrance Day service
The first meeting only skimmed the surface, but over time the secrets poured out of him, in a controlled, cathartic cascade.
His memory was pointillist, a series of dots which, when joined up and filled in, created a massive canvas of vivid colour.
‘He added more and more details, at every meeting, gradually building up what we knew,’ said Veronica Price, one of his handlers. ‘He had a great gift for remembering conversations. He recalled timing, context, wording.’
The result was that, after three months of debriefing, MI6 had the single largest ‘operational download’ in its history, an astonishingly meticulous and comprehensive insight into the KGB, past, present and future.
One by one, Gordievsky exorcised the demons of MI6 history.
For years there had been rumours of a ‘Fifth Man’, an unexposed member of the notorious Cambridge spy ring of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt. Gordievsky confirmed it was John Cairncross, a former MI6 officer.
He was able to name a Soviet spy discovered in 1946 but never formally identified, as Leo Long, a former intelligence officer, and that an Italian nuclear physicist, Bruno Pontecorvo, who worked on Britain’s wartime atomic bomb research, had volunteered his services to the KGB seven years before he defected to the USSR in 1950.
He also laid to rest the long-held conspiracy theory — on which much angst had been expended in the intelligence services — that Roger Hollis, a former chief of MI5, was a Soviet mole.
Most importantly, Gordievsky also put to rest MI6’s anxiety about current operations. MI6 had expected to learn that there was a vast network of KGB agents in Britain, communist spies like the Cambridge Five who had wormed their way into the Establishment to destroy it from within.
But Gordievsky told them that the KGB had only a small handful of agents, contacts and illegals in Britain, none very threatening.
Moreover, his insider’s depiction of KGB operations indicated that MI6’s Soviet adversary was not the invincible giant of myth, but flawed, clumsy and inefficient. It remained vast, well-funded and ruthless but its ranks included many time-servers, boot-lickers and lazy careerists with little imagination.
The KGB was still a dangerous antagonist, but its vulnerabilities and deficiencies were now exposed. It could be beaten.
The same could also be said of the Soviet Union as a whole, and it was Gordievsky’s role in setting Western minds straight about the fault lines within the communist monolith that were crucial to its collapse and the end of the Cold War. Margaret Thatcher certainly took inspiration from him, and, though she never met him, she developed a soft spot for her Russian spy. She did not know his name, and referred to him as ‘Mr Collins’.
She knew he spied from within the Soviet embassy, worried about the personal strain on him and reflected that he might ‘jump at any time’ and defect. If that moment came, the Prime Minister insisted, he and his family must be properly cared for.
Gordievsky’s reports to MI6 warned that the Soviet leadership was genuinely fearful, braced for combat, and panicky enough to believe that its survival might depend on pre-emptive action
His reports were conveyed by her Private Secretary, numbered and marked ‘Top Secret and Personal’ and ‘UK Eyes A’, meaning they were not to be shared with other countries. Thatcher consumed them avidly, reading every word, making notes, posing questions. She was conscious that ‘Mr Collins’ was furnishing uniquely precious political insight.
In the words of her biographer, Charles Moore, ‘Gordievsky’s despatches conveyed to her, as no other information had done, how the Soviet leadership reacted to Western phenomena and, indeed, to her’.
In the latter half of 1983, East and West seemed to be heading into armed and perhaps terminal conflict, propelled by a potentially lethal combination of Soviet paranoia and posturing from U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Reagan threatened to ‘leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history’ and continued a military build-up, accompanied by penetrations into Soviet airspace and clandestine naval operations demonstrating how close Nato could get to Russian military bases.
These were designed to stoke Russian anxiety, and they succeeded. KGB stations were bombarded with farcical orders from Moscow to find signs that the U.S. and Nato were preparing a surprise nuclear attack.
They were to report whether lights were burning late in Whitehall offices or hospitals were gearing up for mass casualties, and even the number of cattle killed at abattoirs was increasing sharply, as an indication that the West was stockpiling hamburgers prior to Armageddon.
Foot did not conceal his meetings with Soviet officials and since he was a public figure these were impossible to arrange clandestinely. They took place roughly once a month over lunch
It was all nonsense, but the KGB took it seriously and reported to Moscow that the West was, indeed, making plans for a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR.
When a Soviet interceptor aircraft shot down a Korean airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace, Reagan condemned it as ‘an act of barbarism’ and ramped up military spending. Moscow, in turn, interpreted Western anger as manufactured moral hysteria, preparatory to an attack.
Gordievsky’s reports to MI6 warned that the Soviet leadership was genuinely fearful, braced for combat, and panicky enough to believe that its survival might depend on pre-emptive action. Events could have got out of hand, the nuclear missiles launched, but for his warnings.
He also took a common sense approach when a Nato-simulated war game known as Able Archer with 40,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Western Europe was seen by the panicky Russians as a mask for the real thing: a nuclear first strike.
A telegram from Moscow Centre to the KGB’s London rezidentura putting it on a virtual war alert was passed by Gordievsky to MI6. It was the first indication received by the West that the Soviets were over-reacting to the exercise.
Thanks to him, Nato toned down some aspects of the exercise, leaving the Soviets in no doubt that it just was a war game. Disaster was averted.
Both Thatcher and Reagan grasped how jumpy the Russians were.
The essence of Gordievsky’s reporting about the mind-set in Moscow was passed to Reagan in the form of a regular summary. The president was said to be ‘very moved’ by what he read, and it underpinned his growing conviction that a greater effort had to be made to end the Cold War.
He began to moderate his anti-Soviet invective, while Thatcher resolved to reach out to Moscow, move beyond the rhetoric of the ‘evil empire’ and consider how the West could bring the Cold War to an end.
She followed Gordievsky’s advice and behaved respectfully and sensitively when she went to Moscow for the state funeral of the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. It worked; they were charmed by her.
He also briefed both Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, the coming man in the Soviet Union and soon to be its reformist leader, when he visited London. Uniquely in intelligence history, a spy was in a position to choreograph a meeting between two world leaders, by spying for, and reporting to, both sides.
The essence of Gordievsky’s reporting about the mind-set in Moscow was passed to Reagan, pictured above with Mikhail Gorbachev, in the form of a regular summary. The president was said to be ‘very moved’ by what he read
In his KGB capacity, he advised Gorbachev on what to say to Thatcher, while, with his MI6 hat on, suggesting what she might say to him.
The two got on well and established a productive relationship. It was almost as if they were working from the same script, which, in a way, they were, thanks to Gordievsky.
Spies tend to make extravagant claims for their craft, but the reality of espionage is that it frequently makes little difference. Yet very occasionally one does have a profound impact on history.
Gordievsky’s key contribution is that he opened up the inner workings of the KGB at a pivotal juncture, revealing not just what Soviet intelligence was doing (and not doing), but what the Kremlin was thinking and planning. He changed the West’s view, by risking his life to betray his country, and made the world a little safer.
Adapted from THE SPY AND THE TRAITOR by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking at £25. © Ben Macintyre 2018.
To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to December 8, 2018; p&p free), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.